Known as a down-to-earth, working-class town, famous for its sports teams, its literary giants and a certain HBO series, Baltimore is also a city of business (Legg Mason, Under Armour), higher education (Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland professional schools) and the arts.
Its large but somewhat scattered arts community was given an official nudge over the last few years when, in the name of economic development, the Maryland state government created three special districts in various parts of the city. These more or less unified geographic areas, each with an impressive stock of historic buildings — some gorgeously restored and repurposed, many awaiting renovation — are home to a growing number of performing and visual arts venues.
The three are called the Highlandtown Arts and Entertainment District, in East Baltimore; the Station North Arts and Entertainment District (or simply Station North), adjacent to Penn Station; and, the newest, the Bromo Tower Arts and Entertainment District.
The latter is named for the famed Emerson Bromo Seltzer Tower, a Renaissance Revival landmark and the tallest building in Baltimore from 1911 to 1923. Its four-sided clock is currently in Maine for repair. In 2007, with help from philanthropists Eddie and Sylvia Brown, the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts transformed the tower into studios for artists.
Walking distance from the Inner Harbor, Camden Yards and what’s now called Royal Farms Arena (where Amy Schumer will appear this Saturday), the Bromo District also contains numerous University of Maryland buildings and the 234-year-old Lexington Market. It extends north to the home of the Arena Players, a notable African American theater company, and the Eubie Blake National Jazz and Cultural Center, among other cultural institutions.
Bromo’s performing-arts anchor is the Thomas Lamb-designed Hippodrome Theatre, built in 1914 for vaudeville. Milton Berle, Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Benny Goodman all performed there, as did the young Frank Sinatra.
Completely renovated in 2004 as part of a larger complex, the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, the Hippodrome, under president Ron Legler, bristles and shines with opportunity, potential and ambition. In 2013, less than a block away, it was joined in the reawakening neighborhood by Everyman Theatre, founded in 1990 by Vincent Lancisi, who remains Everyman’s artistic director.
Artists are starting to flock to the district, not just in the Bromo Tower, but on nearby Saratoga Street, for instance, in a building that houses Maryland Art Place at ground level, Terrault Contemporary on the third floor and Jordan Faye Contemporary — a brightly-lit top-floor space run by the high-energy Jordan Faye Block — on the fifth.
We sat down last week to chat with Block, Legler and Stephen Yasko, the district’s just-appointed executive director, about the arts in Bromo. The three share a seemingly boundless enthusiasm, as does Lancisi, who over the years and in three locations has established a repertory theater with a well-regarded resident acting company. Among its members was the late Tana Hicken, a luminous actress known for her award-winning work at D.C.’s Studio and Shakespeare theaters.
“The opportunity to move into the Bromo District was a terrific opportunity for us,” Lancisi said by telephone from New York. “We’ve already built an audience, but this was an opportunity to build it, to share it. We’ll be a part of an area that has some very creative leaders. We’ll be able to expand the things we do, to continue to be adventurous.”
Everyman’s willingness to take on new work is exemplified by its upcoming production, “Dot,” by rising playwright Colman Domingo — also a Tony- and Olivier-nominated actor for his role in “The Scottsboro Boys.” Running Dec. 7 through Jan. 8 and directed by Lancisi, the play deals with incidents both humorous and touching that occur when adult children return for the holidays to their West Philadelphia home.
Only a few days on the job, Yasko emphasized that Bromo’s progress will come from building relationships, a connection among its parts. “In Washington, you have the Studio Theatre as an early part of the 14th Street explosion there, but there was no continuity up and down the streets,” he noted. One of his priorities is to encourage cooperative efforts, cross-pollination and cross-promotion.
Block’s Jordan Faye Contemporary gallery is practically the epitome of that concept. Her arts, consulting and residency program, called “Thrive,” is dedicated to helping young artists and curators merge with the community where they live through workshops, residency experiences, mentoring and exhibition opportunities. Even when artists are not present, the large space, with views of the bustling community outside, seems very alive.
Two eye-catching exhibitions recently opened and will remain on view through Dec. 22: “Forest Through the Trees,” a solo show of work by D.C.-based sculptor and installation artist (and Corcoran alum) Jeffery Herrity; and “Being Present,” a group show of more than 50 artists, with the extended subtitle, “Honoring Where We’ve Been, Embracing Where We Are Going, & Celebrating A Decade Of Jordan Faye Contemporary.”
Legler came to Baltimore in 2014 from Orlando, where he was president of the Florida Theatrical Association and chairman of Orlando’s Downtown. (He also cofounded the nightclub Pulse, the scene of last June’s horrific mass shooting.)
“For the Hippodrome, it’s a fabulous time,” Legler said. Outgoing, warm and effusive, he was also a little breathless, having rushed over from a morning performance of “Cinderella” for schoolchildren, funded by the France-Merrick Foundation. “It’s such a historic place, and we haven’t really hit our stride yet.” The theater is the Baltimore venue for national-tour producer Broadway Across America. “We get some shows first, and that’s always a plus for Baltimore,” he said.
Legler is also looking to connect with the community. “The space has terrific potential, in addition to the theater and the [Broadway] series,” he said. “We have a bank lobby with high ceilings that can be used for anything.”
Coming up at the Hippodrome are: “A Christmas Story,” based on the classic 1983 film, Dec. 6 through 11; Moscow Ballet’s “Great Russian Nutcracker,” Dec. 16 and 17; and the Broadway hit “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” Dec. 27 through Jan. 1.