Changes in Baltimore

An essay by Cara Ober ’05 (Studio Art M.F.A.), editor-in-chief, BmoreArt.

I arrived in Baltimore in 2000 with a strong desire to become an artist, but I was clueless about how to do this. I come from a middle class family of educators, and my desire to make a living as an artist, build creative community, or to found a small business seemed like a ridiculous fairy tale.

The art world offers so many contradictions about the relationship between art and money it’s hard to know where to begin. In mainstream media, we regularly read about astronomical auction prices, mega-artists with hundreds of assistants, and billionaire collectors and museum trustees. Then there are the passionate but starving artists with mountains of student loan debt, deft waitressing skills, and little hope of ever making a living from art sales. Both extremes are clichés with little depth or founding, yet both seem to dominate art world press and maintain a powerful presence in the minds of artists. While incomplete, these stereotypes continue to promote unhealthy attitudes and behavior among working artists and misunderstanding from the general public.

I started out my career by renting a studio with other artists, enrolling in MICA’s low-residency MFA program, and founding BmoreArt as an online art blog. I had no idea that these three practices would form the basis of my career as an artist, educator, and publisher in Baltimore, that they would serve as a pathway for me to build a life in the arts.

As a journalist, I still find the artist-money continuum to be fascinating, and I am constantly amazed by the way successful artists find a balance between extremes. While I have found very few who live solely from the sales of their work, I have interviewed hundreds of artists who are learning to successfully navigate their financial decisions in a way that actually benefits and grows their art practice. It is these artists, who quietly budget their time, money, and resources so that they continuously move forward from one fulfilled project to the next, who have the most to teach us. Often their stories aren’t sexy, dramatic, or loud. They don’t grab headlines. As a result, stories of thriving, pragmatic artists aren’t widely shared, and representing them as complex individuals with families and bank accounts has become a significant goal for me as an arts writer and publisher.

Over the past few years, BmoreArt has grown into an online magazine with dozens of contributors, a host of events, and a beautiful new print journal. Although we review exhibits and promote participation in community events and projects, one main goal of our publication is to offer honest, healthy, and creative conversations around artists’ financial struggles, highlighting lessons learned by those achieving their goals.

In a city with few commercial galleries and a slowly growing art market, it’s empowering to discover a thriving community of artists who maintain growing and ambitious careers. By sharing their stories and exploring the ways they sustain careers, we benefit as a community. In many ways, Baltimore is a creative leader and a flash point for creative endeavors all over the world. As a community, we offer an alternative to the broad and mostly false narratives about artists in mainstream media. As an individual artist, curious thinker, writer, and publisher, I have been able to encourage and promote conversations that continue in studios, galleries, classrooms, and boardrooms — wherever artists inspire, incite, and connect with audience, shaping the world that we live in, especially here in Baltimore.