Art and Activism in Charm City: Five Baltimore Collectives That Are Facing Race

There's more to Baltimore's arts scene than John Waters. Colorlines hung out with five collectives trying to reshape the city's culture.

By Jamilah King Nov 15, 2012

In 1975, William Donald Schaefer had a big problem. As the mayor of Baltimore, one of Schaefer’s chief job duties was to promote his city. But, in his estimation, he had a faulty product. The city’s population had been dwindling for more than 20 years and, like many other major cities across the country, the mostly black residents who remained were left with few reliable industries, under-resourced schools, and crumbling infrastructure. Not exactly travel brochure stuff, from the mayor’s perspective. It’s with this in mind that Shaefer called on four of Baltimore’s leading advertising and creative executives to come up with something catchy that, rhetorically at least, could help change things.

The men who answered the call were Stan Paulus, Herb Fried, writer Bill Evans and art director Dan Loden. Years later, Loden would recall the group’s process. "Stan Paulus and Bill Evans came up with the thought that Baltimore had so much hidden charm and started to work out how the idea might be translated into advertisements," Loden told the Baltimore Sun back in 1998. That eventually led to the nickname that the group settled on: Charm City.

As the story goes, there were visual ads that followed with charm braclets, but those eventually died out. What remained was the nickname, an indicator of just how much cities like to reinvent themselves.

The family is in Baltimore this week, where we’re gathering from our far flung posts around the country with more than 1,300 racial justice thinkers, activists, organizers and culture makers for Facing Race 2012. So as we’ve geared up for the gathering, I also checked in on arts and activism scene in our host town. Baltimore, a city full of social and economic contrasts, has has been home to burgeoning artistic talent for decades. After all, this is the place where rapper 2pac learned ballet while hanging out with best friend Jada Pinkett when both were students at Baltimore School for the Arts.

Charm City still boasts a vast community of activists who use art to not just send a message or sell a product, but to create change. It is a place with deeply entrenched economic inequities, where many of the city’s mostly black residents live in poverty. Away from the glittering and newly redeveloped harbor are communities working hard to survive decades of neglect and abandon. Many people see that reality as a call to action, a chance to create something new while also celebrating what’s been there for years. "Baltimore really has a lot of issues that are a model for global issues," said Cynthu Muthusamy, a junior who’s studying printmaking at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Josh Burke, a 22-year-old senior studying animation, has a similar sentiment. "We have to address social issues," he told me one afternoon on campus. "It’s unavoidable in a city like Baltimore."

I caught up with some of the many "artivists" who are doing just that here. If you’re in town with us, you can meet many of these groups in person at Facing Race. And if you’re not, be sure to follow along with us on Twitter with the hashtag: #FacingRace.

Baltimore Mixtape Project

Earlier this year, professor Chris Baron put an ambitious idea up for public approval. Baron and a collection of Baltimore-based artists, activists, and community members came together to do something seemingly simple: promote locally produced music and help young people. That led to the creation of the Baltimore Mixtape Project, a volunteer-led group that helps young folks host concerts and poetry slams. In January, the group capped off a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised $3,000 for "Battle: Bar None", a contest aimed at drawing attention to the school-to-prison pipeline.

New Lens

It’s rare to find a place where young people are talked with instead of spoken to. But that’s the goal of New Lens, a Baltimore-based youth media group that arms the city’s young folks with the tools to tell their own stories. In this case, the chosen medium is film, where over 200 school-age young people tackle the problems that matter to them most, like how to find a job, talk about sex, and confront the police.  The group’s work has gained them a sort of local notoriety as suitors ranging from the ACLU of Maryland to the Health Department of Baltimore City have commissioned promotional videos. 

Charm City Kitty Club

Maryland voters made history this year by voting in support of same sex marriage, a moment that many have characterized as a gamechanging feat that signals how a multiracial electorate is growing more liberal by the year. The feat itself is worthy of celebration, something that the Charm City Kitty Collective knows more than a thing or two about. A communally run queer cabaret, the collective has for years provided spaces for queer artists and performers to show off their style and challenge the status quo. One recently advertised show was "When Hairy Met Sally: Queer Beards and Merkin Jerkin", a nod to the fact that the collective’s members aren’t trying to become part of the crowd, but stand proudly ahead of it.

Baltimore Arts & Justice Project

Univerisities often have contentious relationships with the communities that surround them. In New York, Columbia and NYU have for decades been embroiled in bitter land disputes with their neighbors. The Baltimore Arts + Justice Project is an attempt to change that reality. Housed at the Maryland Institute for the College of Arts (MICA) and co-led by longtime community activist Kalima Young, the Baltimore Arts + Justice Project seeks to foster community engagement. Young, a Baltimore native who previously served as director of an adolescent AIDS program, helps lead a program that tries to tackle the big picture questions: What is art? What is community activism? And how can the two work together? Arts + Justice is working toward an answer.

MOONROOT Collective

What started as a conversation about gender over gchat, and has since morphed into an online and physical gathering of Asian American women giving the proverbial middle finger to the world. The MOONROOT collective provides a unique space for women, genderqueen and transgender voices. A series of clever zines force readers to confront their own prejudices and offers insight into the intimate conversations that don’t often become a topic of conversation in mainstream media. In one, Marilla Li  ffers a list of things that aren’t discussed at home: an eating disorder, sex, falling in love with a trans man, and the joys of a first vibrator. In another note, Sun Hashmi writes: "When people ask me, ‘When did you come to this country?’ I say when my mama gave birth to me.’"

* This story has been updated since publication.