Best of Baltimore
Best of Baltimore 2023
Our annual celebration of the best that Charm City has to offer.
Written and edited by Lydia Woolever
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MIKE MORGAN
You could almost hear the collective exaltation when it was announced that Asma Naeem would be appointed the new director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Naeem is the first woman of color to oversee the 109-year-old institution, and also a proud daughter of Baltimore, having grown up here after immigrating from Pakistan as a child. The former chief curator has infused an earnest desire to affect positive social change at the museum, prioritizing local artists of color and diversifying docents to make it a more inclusive space. If the turnout for "The Culture"—the first new exhibit under her tenure, which she co-curated with chief education officer Gamynne Guillotte—is any indication, her leadership is ushering in a new era, one welcomed by all walks of Baltimore.
ARTIST TO WATCH
If you’ve attended an art exhibit in Baltimore lately, there’s a good chance you’ve come across the striking oil paintings of this 25-year-old artist, who uses bold colorscapes, natural poses, and sharp-but-subtle detail to capture what makes her Black subjects both ordinary and extraordinary. Over the last year, Ikegwu’s work has been displayed at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, Galerie Myrtis, Goya Contemporary, and the BMA’s “The Culture” exhibition, in which two pieces, “Open” and “Closed,” receive prominent placement. Both are self-portraits; the Carver High and MICA graduate often features friends and family, but sometimes, playfully or poignantly and always with a defiant grace, she paints herself front and center, creating some of our favorite works.
The Company of Strangers by Jen Michalski
There’s a yearning for community in this compelling short story collection by Jen Michalski. Even if the individual characters or exact circumstances (sometimes involving meteors) seem unique, there is a clear commonality for all readers in recognizing that we are largely strangers in a world of strangers. Mostly set in Baltimore—Michalski’s hometown, though she recently relocated to California—this book offers a rumination on how we navigate the surreal moments of our own lives. The plots don’t shy away from the lonely side of being human, and that’s what gives them resonance.
“A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration”
Over the winter, a collection of quilts, photographs, paintings, and films explored both the personal and collective story of the Great Migration in the special exhibition galleries of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Between 1910 and 1970, the exodus of more than six million African Americans from the rural South to the North, Midwest, and West was one of the most significant movements of people in U.S. history and "A Movement in Every Direction" proved as compelling as the event it sought to commemorate. Co-curated by BMA contemporary art head Jessica Bell Brown and Ryan N. Dennis of the Mississippi Museum of Art, the exhibition highlighted 12 artists, from internationally recognized stars like multidisciplinary artist Carrie Mae Weems to talent with local connections such as Zoë Charlton and Akea Brionne. Historically informed, complex, and often deeply intimate, the exhibit pointed not just to the past but to the continuing influence of the Great Migration, in Baltimore and beyond.
Nia June, Kirby Griffin, and APoetNamedNate
In 2019, Nia June made her cinematic debut with the poignant A Black Girl’s Country, a poem and accompanying short film that honored Black women in their magic and multitudes. Then, earlier this year, this Baltimore-native bard reunited with her same crew—cinematographer Kirby Griffin and creative director APoetNamedNate—for The Unveiling of God / a love letter to my forefathers. This time around, their breathtaking visual ode is dedicated to the nuanced humanity of Black men. Across 20 minutes and five chapters, they meld powerful verse, dream-like portraits, and a sweeping soundtrack to create a counternarrative of masculinity. In turn, the talented trio establishes themselves as masterful auteurs, able to bottle an ineffable essence of the Black experience.
If you could build the perfect Baltimore Symphony Orchestra maestro in a lab, they might look a lot like Jonathon Heyward. Not only is he young—he just turned 30 this year—charismatic, and Black, he is a product of a public arts program not unlike the BSO’s OrchKids, the Marin Alsop-created nonprofit that teaches musical instruments to underserved youth. But all of this would be meaningless if he weren’t also a wonderful conductor—and he is just that, developing an instant simpatico with the orchestra and earning praise from The Washington Post for, among other things, “coaxing wonderfully responsive playing from across the strings.” The world is taking notice—on the heels of his appointment as BSO music director, he was named the conductor of Lincoln Center’s famed Mostly Mozart orchestra (don’t worry, it’s a summer program that won’t interfere with his BSO duties). Luckily, we got him first—and hopefully for a long time to come.
CFG Bank Arena
In some ways, it pains us to award this category to a corporate-sponsored stadium. But we have to tip our hat to the newly overhauled CFG Bank Arena—recently known as the Royal Farms Arena—which has finally made Baltimore a major tour stop for big-name acts (take that, D.C.!). With the help of Maryland-born basketball star Kevin Durant, the former “Chicken Box” has already brought the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Lizzo to town, plus one especially Instagrammed visit from Blink 182 (with Travis Barker and Kourtney Kardashian sightseeing around the harbor). Nothing will replace our independent venues, but CFG is a welcome addition to downtown.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PHILIP MURIEL
“Flavored Water and Corned Beef Sandwiches” by SHAN Wallace
When you walk into the new Lexington Market from Paca Street, your eyes are immediately drawn to one location. Not Faidley’s. Not Connie’s Chicken and Waffles. (Those turn heads, too, of course.) But through the medley of merchants, above the central staircase, it’s impossible not to be struck by the centerpiece artwork, created by local photographer-collagist SHAN Wallace. Using her own evocative images and distinctly energetic style, this soaring installation, pictured above, depicts the Black life that has long filled this market, helping to document its past and create safe space for its future. Wallace grew up going here, and the 32-year-old’s work exudes love for not only Lexington’s lake trout and snowball classics, but her city at large.
COURTESY OF DERRICK ADAMS STUDIO
It’s not every day that a talented local artist makes it big outside of Baltimore and then returns home to invest their success back into the city. But Derrick Adams—the 53-year-old Park Heights native who has gained international acclaim for his eclectic oeuvre that ranges from painting and sculpture to sound, video, and fashion—is anything but average. And as his star continues to rise, from being included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection to recent representation by the venerable Gagosian gallery, the New York-based multi-disciplinary dynamo is increasingly setting his sights on his hometown. Recently, after dreaming up a rejuvenating space for creatives of color, he opened The Last Resort Artist Retreat in Waverly. Next up, he’s purchased a double lot on Greenmount Avenue, which will become the future Black Baltimore Digital Database, meant to archive the achievements and experiences of the local African-American community.