Arts & Culture

Art/Life Balance

Cara Ober is the woman behind the longest running arts and culture magazine in the city.

Cara Ober is relatively easy to spot at an art exhibit preview. It’s not only because of her art-chic style and general confidence and authority when it comes to art, but because she is deeply, passionately inquisitive about the work. Even if you were to close your eyes, you could most likely recognize her by her voice; she is often the first person, in a room buzzing with press, to look directly at the artists and start firing off insightful questions—the ones that either seem too difficult to ask or had eluded others, sometimes even the artists themselves.

Ober is her own brand. Or, more accurately, her name is synonymous with BmoreArt, the Baltimore arts and culture magazine that she founded in 2007. She didn’t know then how much the city would come to need a platform that exposes the community to what’s happening in the arts while validating the artists who work here. The longest-running arts publication in the city, it gracefully strikes a balance between high art and pop culture, with a range of subject matter covering visual art, music, theater, film, and extending into other culturally rich areas, like food.

“I always have people asking me, ‘Do you still make art?’” the Maryland Institute College of Art alum says in her Area 405 studio, which is relatively barren and appears to serve these days mostly as storage space for her older work. “I’m like, these magazines are art! They are collaborative, community-based art, and it is part of my art practice. Creatively, I find it really satisfying.”

The “observer effect” theory states that an observer changes the nature of whatever it is they are observing. Though usually used to describe scientific phenomena, it could also be applied to Ober’s observations of Baltimore over the past 12-plus years. In 2007, at a time when seemingly everyone was creating a blog, Ober started BmoreArt on Blogspot to showcase visual art events. The webzine evolved to include biannual print magazines, with funding from the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, and this year has grown again, adding more staff and a new initiative that connects Baltimore artists with collectors.

BmoreArt is a huge gift for the [art] institutions that are here,” says Julia Marciari-Alexander, director of the Walters Art Museum. “Cara thinks about art in a holistic way. The intelligence with which she approaches the articles, it’s really excellent art criticism in the best sense—not necessarily negative, but thoughtful art criticism. And that’s a dying practice.”

Adds Donna Drew Sawyer, CEO of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts: “Cara is really an example of the kind of can-do, maker attitude we have here in Baltimore . . . Cara moved forward and published this magazine, fearless of what others thought could or could not be successful. And she made it successful. I think she’s just pure Baltimore. That’s the way we do things.”

As for Ober, she can sometimes hardly believe it herself.

“I never thought this would become what it is,” she says. “I never thought this would be my job.”

“I never thought this would become what it is. I never thought this would be my job.”

Even as a little girl growing up in Westminster, Ober often felt like an observer.

“My younger brother was always the super-super talented artist,” the 44-year-old says. “We were both classically trained pianists, but he was one of those prodigy types. His talent never required any artist statement or introduction. I was like, ‘I’m an artist, too!’” she says with a chuckle. “But I was also in this role of being the audience and the fan, and maybe that’s what all journalists are. Maybe I just didn’t realize that that’s what my art was: paying attention to artists.”

Raised by parents who were both teachers, Ober saw teaching art as a viable career path. So she earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from American University and began teaching high school in Carroll County and later Baltimore County.

“I woke every day thinking, ‘This is not where I’m supposed to be.’ Going to a pep rally? Getting asked to prom by your students? Or someone asking you if they can go to the bathroom?”

These days, as a wife and mother in addition to being an entrepreneur, she usually wakes up to a running list in her mind of all the things she has to do, but she loves the work, interviewing and writing about artists, visiting exhibits, and art talks.

When she moved to Baltimore, her goal was to learn about the artists here and what made them successful—essentially, how they survived—because that’s what she wanted to do, too. She took adult education classes at Maryland Institute College of Art and rented studio space while still teaching high school. She started showing her work at galleries in Baltimore and D.C. Thinking her next move would be teaching art at the college level, she earned an MFA in painting in 2005 through MICA’s low-residency program.

Her first introduction to writing about the arts came through Radar, a pocket-sized art guide edited by Jack Livingston and published quarterly. “A lot of times, you pitch your stuff to new publications, and they’re snobby or standoffish, but he said, ‘Send me a draft,’” Ober remembers. “And then he’d be like, ‘This is like ad copy. Rewrite it. Change this. Change that. Change this.’” Ober pressed on, and eventually Livingston began publishing her work, which received positive feedback from readers. “When I started putting my stuff out there, people were paying attention. When you put your energy into something, and you feel that energy coming back—it feels good. So I kept doing it.”

While an adjunct professor at MICA in 2007, she created BmoreArt with another artist she’d met through the school (he quickly realized he didn’t want to write and backed out). Other artists jumped in, and the site was launched as a space to post upcoming events, gallery reviews, and press releases.

She later worked for Urbanite magazine as its arts and culture editor and would often cross-publish some of the content to BmoreArt. When Urbanite folded in 2012, she felt a void, particularly within the arts coverage in the city. Trying to fill it, she picked up the pace of BmoreArt, publishing multiple original pieces of content every week by herself and contributors.

But it was exhausting, she wasn’t making any money, and she had a child now—her son, Leo, was born in 2010. Just when she began considering calling it quits, she got an unexpected email from Jane Brown, president of the Deutsch Foundation. The two met for lunch to discuss the future of BmoreArt, and Brown eventually offered to help fund the publication because she believed it was an important component of the arts ecosystem.

“She had been doing this on her own for years without any financial support at all—which really tells you something,” says Brown. “As an artist herself, she’s super committed to artists at every level, and the emerging artists are a huge asset that this city has never properly valued or made any investment in.”

With funding from the Deutsch Foundation, Ober felt like she’d hit the lottery. She could pay herself for the first time.

By November 2015, Ober branched out to include a biannual print magazine. This was not a business decision, she says. This was an artist decision. “Most people told me not to do it, but I’m not a good follower of directions,” she says. “I wanted it to be beautiful. I wanted it to be an art object. I wanted it to be something people could keep and collect. I wanted it to be thematic, like an exhibition.”

She printed a run of 3,000 and, only days before receiving them, realized she had a few logistics to figure out. Like where to store them. And how to distribute them. Hosting a launch party seemed like a viable option—she’d be able to get as many magazines in people’s hands as possible all in one place. The party sold out, with more than 300 attendees packing into the Maryland Art Place.

“It was so cool, and it was diverse in every way—age and race and background,” she says. “Art events aren’t always like that. All these different people in a room together.”

“I wanted it to be beautiful. . . . I wanted it to be something people could keep and collect.”

It was Ober’s open-mindedness that drew Angela Carroll to become a contributor to BmoreArt about five years ago. Carroll, an adjunct professor at Stevenson University and an arts writer, noticed a lack of people of color in media in this majority-black city, and because of that, artists of color were receiving poor coverage—their works either overlooked entirely or not contextualized properly.

“Cara was open to really supporting me in trying to fill that gap and correct that historical omission,” says Carroll, who also occasionally contributes to Baltimore. “If our archives don’t show these narratives, these publications are going to be in a really precarious situation in a few years when people start asking questions. BmoreArt has always tried to move differently. Cara is all about using writing as a radical tool and a mobilizing tool.”

BmoreArt has diversified since 2007 in every way, through its writers, the people it features, and even from covering predominately visual arts to now covering a variety of artistic mediums. People have noticed and appreciated the magazine’s scope. With a 12-year archive online, it charts a very specific narrative of a time and place and scene that wasn’t documented nearly as rigorously in traditional media outlets. Twelve years might not seem like a lot, but a lot has happened in the city during that time. It saw the rise of maker spaces, the rise and fall of several prominent warehouse studio spaces, and the transformation of city neighborhoods, most notably Station North, Greenmount West, and Barclay, after the Station North Arts and Entertainment District was designated in 2002.

BmoreArt has become one of the few places you can turn to to trace the evolution of Baltimore’s art scene,” says Bret McCabe, another BmoreArt contributor. He met Ober before her magazine days, while he was covering arts and culture for Baltimore City Paper, where he worked from 2001 to 2011.

“Baltimore is affordable, you can create work, and that’s awesome,” he goes on. “But if nobody’s really paying attention, that kinda sucks.”

Baltimore artist Jeffrey Kent echoes that sentiment when he points out that Ober has helped to “fill a huge void. Without art, we’d not be a city; we’d be a large town,” he says.

Both Ober and Kent have similar missions: they’re practicing artists who help other artists and seek ways to give the city positive recognition.

Ober partnered this year with Kent to launch a speaker series, Connect + Collect. The series brings together nationally and internationally known artists and curators for free events open to the public.

They’re also offering studio tours to out-of-town speakers and Baltimore-based collectors. They select “artists we believe people should be collecting,” says Kent, director of the former SubBasement Studios, once the largest gallery in the city. He was the first person to represent and sell Amy Sherald’s work.

“The Walters, the BMA, MICA—they bring people to Baltimore all the time, but those people don’t see any of Baltimore. What if they could see some artist studios?” Ober says. “I’ve been doing this research for 15 years, and so has Jeffrey. There are artists here who are poised for national or international museum careers. What would happen if a group of collectors invested in these artists? How might that elevate the reputation of Baltimore?”

Ober also expanded BmoreArt’s staff this year, hiring a full-time managing editor and sales and marketing director. This will allow her to focus more on writing stories and being out in the community as the face of BmoreArt, rather than managing its daily operations.

Through the growth of BmoreArt, Ober is left thinking more seriously about its audience and who she isn’t reaching and why. What would draw people who aren’t interested in art to a publication covering the arts? It’s a question she asked herself as a high school art teacher, many moons ago.

“If you can sell the idea of contemporary art to high school kids—when all they really care about is gossip and getting laid—then you can interest anybody,” she says.

The trick?

“I still think the sex and gossip sells it,” she says. To that end, in a 2018 BmoreArt piece, she writes about female sexuality in ancient art but manages to draw in references to Kim Kardashian and the short-lived TV show I Love Dick. But of course, it’s about more than that. “It’s about making people realize that this work is about them. In the best works of art, you see yourself,” she says. “It gives you a sense of who you are and how the world works. It changes and deepens that. . . . It enhances your experience of being human in the world.”