After a fire in the DIY space Ghost Ship claimed the lives of 36 people in Oakland in December, cities around the U.S. went into panic mode. Unpermitted arts spaces found themselves subject to a spate of surprise inspections that sometimes resulted in evictions.
Now, two months after the fire, cities are starting to put together plans to help artists stay in their spaces while ensuring that another Ghost Ship tragedy never happens again.
The Ghost Ship fire happened Dec. 2, and Baltimore’s Bell Foundry, a two-story theater, art venue and live-work space was shuttered the following Monday. Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh was sworn in the next day.
Pugh almost immediately announced a Safe Arts Space Task Force to create a network of safe and affordable spaces for Baltimore’s artists. The task force has met three times and appears to be moving quickly, separating into three working groups to identify artists’ space needs, study code and regulatory issues, and come up with creative financing options for new development, according to task force member Jeannie Howe, who is also executive director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance.
Her group, which supports artists through political advocacy, grants and awards, and training, had been working on space issues long before the Ghost Ship fire. Despite Baltimore’s reputation as a postindustrial city “with lots of space,” that space isn’t always accessible to artists because of cost or regulatory issues.
One of the groups that lost its space when Bell Foundry was closed was the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, which used the first floor as a space to build sets and props, store costumes, and rehearse. Aran Keating, BROS artistic director, says he’s puzzled by the disconnect between empty spaces and artists who want to use them.
“In a city full of vacant buildings, it’s inexcusable to me to know that there’s resources the city isn’t using, resources that could be benefiting the community, could be advancing the cause of the city, which is to put together a livable awesome space,” he says. “There [should be] some way we can take the spaces that are sitting empty, get them safe enough for artists to inhabit them, set them up with regular inspections. You give an artist something for free, they will take maximum advantage of it. Any resource you can throw at artists is going to get … used. That’s what we do, we build things.”
Keating says he was encouraged by the mayor’s responsiveness in creating the task force, but “until we see tangible recommendations,” he says, “something great could come out of it, and absolutely nothing could come out of it.”
The task force faces a number of seemingly insurmountable challenges. First up, defining the need. “Trying to understand how many artists are working in Baltimore … . It’s not like you can find that out from looking at census data or tax forms,” Howe says. And artists living in underground spaces are traditionally loath to draw attention to themselves, for fear of “trigger[ing] some sort of inspection.”
Adding to the fear and uncertainty is the idea that these spaces, which typically provide gathering places for people of marginalized communities, are being targeted by inflammatory conspiracy theorists. In December, the fire marshal in Fort Worth, Texas, received seven anonymous complaints about a DIY music venue in 48 hours, which were revealed to have come from Internet trolls, the same sort of people as an online commenter who called Ghost Ship a “radical leftist commune rife with HIV, drugs and alternative lifestyle degeneracy.” While it’s unclear how many other complaints about underground spaces have been directly tied to trolls, the fear is real, Howe says. Many people in DIY spaces worry that by calling attention to themselves — even simply by volunteering for a free building inspection — they could draw down the wrath of Internet vigilantes.
Howe, as the leader of an arts organization in Baltimore and the daughter of a fire marshal, understands the tension. “I think the public safety issues are real,” she says. “[Artists] aren’t looking for exceptions. They’re taking it seriously too … . The idea of reasonableness and cooperation on both sides is a great thing.”
“Reasonableness and cooperation” is hard to find in places where artists feel, legitimately or not, targeted. In Denver, after two DIY spaces, Rhinoceropolis and Glob, were shut down in December after a surprise inspection, artists showed up to a city meeting dressed in black.
“It was an incredibly emotionally charged meeting,” says Ginger White, deputy director of Denver Arts & Venues. “They do feel targeted. They have a level of mistrust for the city in general … . I would say everyone in the meeting understood that. So that, I think, is part of the hard work in front of us.”
Arts & Venues announced last month that it was allotting $20,000 “to be put toward safe creative spaces and supporting artists.” White says the agency is still studying exactly what to do with that money, acknowledging that it wouldn’t go far toward addressing large code violations. Plus, she says, “we don’t want to subsidize what a property owner should be doing for their property.”
However, the money could be used for cheap, quick fixes, like installing fire extinguishers or buying a Dumpster, or, White says, “soft costs” like code reviews or architectural help.
Denver’s commission on cultural affairs is also exploring the idea of creating a resource bank of professionals willing to donate pro bono time to helping arts spaces get up to code.
It’s going to take time, and it’s going to take money — likely much more than $20,000. But both White and Howe say that the benefits that might come from tackling this challenge head-on could impact more than just artists.
“I think that [it is] a city’s responsibility to think about affordability in general … . That’s something Denver has been grappling with for quite some time,” White says. She points to a new affordable housing fund in the city that will “hopefully allow for all members of our community, including artists, to find affordable housing or affordable workspace.”
Similarly, Howe says, “Artists are not a protected class, and anything we do should and can be a model for helping with other kinds of challenges that we have with safe housing.”
Baltimore’s task force is moving quickly. “We’re not taking a year to get this done,” Howe says.
But the Baltimore Rock Opera Society isn’t waiting around to see what happens. The group is in the midst of a $75,000 crowdfunding campaign to secure a building.
“BROS cannot continue producing art without owning the means of producing it,” the group wrote on its page. “Above all else, we are now convinced we must acquire our forever home.”
Rachel Kaufman is a journalist covering transportation, sustainability, science and tech. Her writing has appeared in Inc., National Geographic News, Scientific American and more.