Arts & Culture

Creative Time

Highlandtown’s Creative Alliance, now 20 years old, doubles down on community-based artwork.

Josh Kohn has a dilemma. It involves experimental cello, yoga, old-time banjo and fiddle, champagne, and pasties. You see, Kohn, performance director at the Creative Alliance in Highlandtown, frets that the versatile arts group may have overbooked Valentine’s Day.

On February 14, the Patterson Theater, where the organization has been headquartered since 2003, figures to be buzzing. During the day, Paul Rucker, a contemporary artist and composer, will be playing cello during a yoga session with Charm City Yoga. Later, members of Old Buck, a North Carolina-based string band, will be conducting workshops. That night, the Creative Alliance’s annual “Tassels & Champagne” party will feature performances by Baltimore’s Gilded Lily burlesque troupe.

“We could certainly use more space,” says Kohn, over lunch at Matthew’s Pizza, across the street from the Patterson.

“Let’s just do the yoga in my office,” says managing director Gina Caruso, only half-joking. “I’m sure we can make it work.”

Though the logistics are challenging, Kohn and Caruso welcome the possible connections that could result when experimental music, yoga, traditional music, and burlesque occupy the same space on the same day. “It’s exciting,” says Kohn. “We thrive on this sort of thing.”

In some ways, it’s just another day at the Creative Alliance.

Since its inception 20 years ago, the Creative Alliance has arguably become the city’s most vibrant community-based arts group. Baltimore named it “Best Creative Hub” in 2012. Last year, it presented more than 450 in-house performances, exhibitions, workshops, film screenings, family activities, and community arts events. Its educational programs reached upwards of 2,500 youngsters.

The February calendar, in addition to the Valentine’s Day festivities, also includes Sudan-born electronic musician Sinkane, drawing classes for adults and children, a “Love Songs of the Presidents” choral concert, a printmaking workshop, a vocal workshop with beatboxer Shodekeh, a samba dance, a screenwriters’ networking session, and more.

“We pooled our experience and championed the power of art to transform a city.”

Caruso mentions a possible addition that just came down the pike—a screening of La Permission, a rarely seen 1968 film by legendary director Melvin Van Peebles. Peebles would attend the screening and answer audience questions. “Wow, that’s very cool,” says Kohn. “With other organizations, there would have to be meetings and lots of conversations to plan something like this, but we’ll be inclined to do it simply because it’s a good idea.”

“These sort of things happen all the time at the Creative Alliance,” notes Caruso.

So the Van Peebles screening gets scheduled for February 19.

The Creative Alliance got its start in a Fells Point cafe in the early to mid-1990s. At the time, co-founder Margaret Footner operated Margaret’s Café on Fell Street and was looking to start a gallery on the second floor. Footner was sitting on the front steps one day when Megan Hamilton—a local arts writer, promoter, and bartender—came by on her bicycle.

“I admired her writing about the arts and knew that, to some degree, Megan was tapped into what was going on,” recalls Footner. “So I asked if she knew anyone who could curate the space.”

Hamilton considered the proposition and returned a few days later with artist Dan Schiavone to say they’d like to take a crack at it. Footner brought them aboard, and the trio began booking not only exhibitions of local artists’ work, but also readings, film screenings, and performances in the newly christened Halcyon Gallery. Early highlights included David Franks’s Dead Letters installation; a camera obscura by Dan Van Allen; and Visual Verse, the gallery’s inaugural show featuring paintings by Richard Sober and ceramic sculpture by Sue Lowe.

Though it was a lot of fun, it soon became apparent that the gallery wasn’t financially sustainable for the goals the group had in mind. But rather than closing up shop, Footner, Hamilton, and Schiavone formed a nonprofit and expanded their mission.

An artist himself, Schiavone had identified a need for increased recognition and networking opportunities for creative types; Hamilton, as a promoter, saw an opportunity to book offbeat music and performances that might have difficulty finding an outlet at more traditional venues; and Footner, with her master’s in education from Loyola University, wanted to promote the arts, engage youth, be accessible to children, and facilitate artist collaborations.

“We pooled our experiences and championed the power of art to transform a neighborhood and maybe even the city,” says Hamilton, who cites community-minded artists like Richard Ellsberry and Doug Retzler as inspirations at the time. “We wanted to invite artists to be part of that transformative change and present their work with some context so the broader community can understand who they are.

“We wanted to take the term ‘local art’ and flip it from meaning half-assed, bad art to meaning, ‘This is good art that your neighbor might have made.’ No, it isn’t on the cover of Time magazine, but it can have greater resonance for you, because you live in Baltimore.”

The Fells Point Creative Alliance was launched in December 1994 and needed funding. At that time, NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street was filming in the neighborhood and the show’s writers and actors frequented Margaret’s. One day, Footner told Homicide writer Jimmy Yoshimura about their plans, and he volunteered to do a benefit. Yoshimura corralled actors Clark Johnson and Kyle Secor for the event, which featured the TV stars telling stories to a packed house at the small gallery. They raised $800 that first year and subsequent Homicide-related fundraisers were held at the Vagabond Players Theater and Center Stage.

“By then, we were making some real money,” says Footner, who notes that she, Hamilton, and Schiavone were also working day jobs and volunteering their time. “All of it went back into the organization.”

“The Creative Alliance really is a brilliant name, because we have become exactly that.”

Their ambitious programming outgrew the gallery space at the cafe and, over the next few years, the group established performance venues in a former Moose Lodge owned by Schiavone (it hosted the first High Zero Festival), an old trolley car barn (also the site of the original Daily Grind), and a Pep Boys auto store/warehouse on Conkling Street. They also developed large-scale community events like the Great Halloween Lantern Parade in Patterson Park.

Then-state-senator Perry Sfikas asked for their input on his campaign to “keep the lights on” in Highlandtown. The founders suggested redeveloping the historic Patterson Theater into a multipurpose arts center, and that idea intrigued the politician. Years of planning and fundraising followed, and Footner and Hamilton credit many people—including Sfikas and U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski, as well as John Waters and organizations like Southeast Community Development Corporation—for helping make it happen. It didn’t hurt that the state had a budget surplus at the time, and economist Richard Florida was getting national attention for championing arts-related development in urban areas.

In May 2003, the Creative Alliance (after dropping the “Fells Point” from its name) opened its multipurpose arts center inside a renovated Patterson Theater, which had been dark for years, on Eastern Avenue.

The Patterson’s marquee has been lit ever since.

For many, the marquee is the most visible manifestation of the Creative Alliance’s presence, but there’s been a lot going on behind-the-scenes lately. Recent moves figure to further entrench the organization in the neighborhood—and the local and national arts communities—for years to come.

Last June, Hamilton announced she was leaving the Creative Alliance in mid-November. Schiavone, a fellow co-founder, had previously departed and opened a gallery, Schiavone Fine Art, in the neighborhood.

“I’m interested in a deeper level of service,” says Hamilton, who’s hoping to work with the Peace Corps as an economic planner in Albania. “My experiences with the Creative Alliance have made me realize the huge impact citizens can have when they try to do good things in their communities. I’d like to take that approach on more of a global level.”

Kohn, her successor as program director, brings a wealth of experience and contacts from his previous job as program officer for jazz and traditional arts at the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation. He seems to mesh well with Caruso, who came to the Creative Alliance from Honolulu—where she was director of the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Doris Duke Theatre—in 2012.

Kohn and Caruso are impressed by their staff’s collaborative nature and hope to leverage that into a series of multi-dimensional mini-festivals that, over the course of a few days or weeks, focus all programming on a single theme.

“We have a great team in place to take things to the next level,” says Footner, who is especially excited about the organization’s education initiatives. “Our programs have evolved in exciting ways that reinforce our emphasis on the importance of being a positive neighbor.”

With an eye toward future growth, they’re looking to purchase a nearby building that will function as an education and community annex. At present, the Creative Alliance offers youth classes after school, on weekends, and over the summer. In 2014, it employed more than 50 artists to work with area children on everything from drawing to puppetry.

“At this point, some of our teaching artists are former participants in the program,” says education director Karen Summerville, who started at the Creative Alliance as a part-time instructor nine years ago while an undergrad at Morgan State University.

She points out that Terry Barnes, now a lead instructor with the Creative Alliance’s after-school program at Tench Tilghman Elementary/Middle School, grew up attending student workshops at the Patterson and went on to graduate from the Baltimore School for the Arts. “At the rate he’s going, he’ll be executive director at the Creative Alliance someday,” says Summerville. “That type of full-circle involvement is something we’re deliberately creating, because we know that, through the education department, we’re growing the next generation of artists and audiences.”

That inclusive, community-minded approach has, says Footner, been the group’s goal from the outset. “The Creative Alliance really is a brilliant name,” she says, “because we have become exactly that. To really succeed, we need everybody. And we’ve learned that the arts really do have the power to create energy and bring people together.”