Grad Wins $10,000 Award for Urban Art Park Project
Best (MBA/MA'14) Launches Nonprofit to Bring Capstone Project to Fruition
Oasis. This spot of fertile ground can be a palm tree dancing in the sandy distance or a park bench among steel skyscrapers. However, in both deserts and cities, they sometimes go unnoticed.
The brainchild of recent MBA/MA graduate Richard Best, bolstered by a $10,000 prize, will turn one such Baltimore oasis from a mirage into reality.
The Section.1 Project plans to convert a derelict swath of land into an urban art canvas. The space—three acres of spray-painted concrete, litter-strewn overgrowth, and mounds of cat food tins—is wedged between screeching light rail trains and burrowing freight locomotives close enough to manufacture breezes. A large portion of it is under the Jones Falls Expressway (see below). And one can’t (legally, as of yet) get to it. In fact, for the best view, walk halfway across the Howard Street bridge’s north side, then lean over.
Owned by the Mass Transit Administration, the grounds are neglected by all save a few MTA employees and graffiti artists. However, Best, a street artist turned design thinker, is not deterred. He recently graduated from the dual MBA/MA in Design Leadership program offered by MICA and the Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School. In fact, Best’s capstone project and full-time obsession epitomizes what he learned as a student: how to solve wicked problems the way a designer confronts challenges. His ambitious plans aim to turn this oasis of a space into a world renowned urban art park, with festivals, incubator space, a skate park, and both curated and free-form street art. Best also does not underestimate the space’s vitality simply as a place to relax, to let the creative juices flow, adjacent to a renowned college of art and design that has no such outdoor space.
At MICA’s commencement in May, Best was one of five recipients of a $10,000 LAB Award to “launch artists in Baltimore.” The prize, started by MICA in 2012, helps new graduate alumni pursue projects that will “make Baltimore a cultural hub unique to the world.” And while Best’s vision has precedent—Love Park in Philadelphia, Wynwood Walls in Miami, City Leaks Urban Art Festival in Cologne—nothing like it exists in Baltimore.
“It’s ludicrous to criminalize artistic activity in an abandoned space that no one sees,” Best said of the parcel, adorned with myriad tags from the “godfathers” of the scene to the noticeably amateur. “There’s more value in creatively activating this space than in arresting artists for utilizing it.”
Best founded The Section.1 Project, a riff on “Section 8” of military parlance, but Best—who is a former Army warfare tech—thinks his vision is anything but crazy. He formed a team that includes development director Sam Polakoff of Cormony Development, which specializes in challenging urban and suburban projects; environmental designer Jon Struse; Jesse James (a student in MICA’s Business of Art and Design graduate program) overseeing artist relations, and Julie Buisson (Design Leadership second cohort student) handling marketing and public relations strategy. The team also engages a group of institutional, legal, and civic advisors, as well as a creative council that includes the likes of electronic musician Dan Deacon, Michael Owen and Scott Burkholder of the Baltimore Love Project, street artist Billy Mode, and Meyerhoff Symphony Hall manager Toby Blumenthal. City councilmen Bill Cole and Carl Stokes, representing districts that the park area covers, are both on board with the project.
The project will be developed in three phases: space preparation and programmatic design, construction of designs, and transfer of operations to the site. Eventually, there will be park headquarters including studio space for traveling artists, shared office and gallery space, and media space for things like weatherproof speakers, projection screens, and cameras to live stream artwork from the park on trains as they pass by. The plan includes plenty of green spaces and quieter study spaces.
An early challenge for Best and his team is access to the space. While the park will benefit from proximity to MICA students, residents of The Fitzgerald, and neighbors in both Station North and Bolton Hill, a variety of barriers from buildings to rivers, tracks to expressways seal it off. Best is already in conversations with Bozzotu, developers of The Fitzgerald, about a walkway leading from the intersection of Mount Royal Avenue and Oliver Street, stretching between the building and light rail tracks, and ending at the park entrance. Walls along the left side of this proposed walkway and around the park’s perimeter would increase safety, reduce noise, and provide for more paintable surfaces. Other access points might include a staircase down from the Howard Street bridge and a bridge from the Jones Fall Trail.
Cynthia Blake Sanders, a MICA alumna and lawyer at the firm Ober-Kaler in Baltimore, sits on Best's advisory council. Among the legal challenges, Sanders noted convincing private property owners, city planners, and city government to provide appropriate zoning and privileges to create a legally sanctioned and accessible park for the various activities Best plans to conduct.
Safety presents another challenge. "The nonprofit will need agreements with artists and park users that keeps everyone safe, permits the walls to change overtime and be used for featured artist shows, and provides Section 1 to document and preserve images and events that happen in the park," Sanders said.
Then there are philosophical challenges, such as formalizing partnerships with the graffiti world, constituents who partly get their fix from skirting rules. Fortunately, Best knows this world because he is part of it. He said that the project team must maintain respect with these artists while developing its own rules so that the space can be curated in a way that encourages collaboration and prevents artists from painting over each others’ work.
“It is important to remember that this is not a graffiti park,” he said, “it is an urban art park. We are creating a space that allows artists from a wide variety of backgrounds to create a dialogue with society on our walls. Graffiti is just one element.”
Best believes that commissioning murals, working with sponsors to provide free paint supplies, and helping promote and creatively document the production of art in the space can incentivize collaboration among artists and between artists and his organization.
Overall, it’s an effort that demands artistic vision, design thinking, buy-in across the board, and significant financial support. The LAB Award provided a good start, but the money was quickly allocated between legal fees, filing for nonprofit status, right of entry fees, assessments, and insurance. About a third of the award will go toward merchandise and promotion materials, which Best expects to roll out to significant exposure during Artscape.
“Our community engagement and crowd-funding efforts will kick off at Artscape,” Best said. “We will be repurposing some of the many thousands of bricks that have been dumped on the site, and allowing Artscape goers to custom paint them at our booth that BOPA (Baltimore Office of Promotion and The Arts) has provided us. We will ask for a small contribution for each painted brick, then use them to decorate the space during its construction.”
Best hopes that the park will serve as an extension of future Artscapes. His goal is to officially open the park for Artscape 2015 with plans for a mural festival, local music, and possibly booths dedicated to local artists. The park would then develop over time.
“It’s still too early to tell what that collaboration with BOPA will look like,” Best said, “but it is safe to say that our launch party will be an unforgettable experience.”
The rhythm of wheels across roadway joints echo beats Best hears coming from as many as three stages. When traffic lulled, birds could be heard overhead with the babbling Jones Falls nearby. The two in harmony embody what an “urban park” can be.
Sometimes, oases are tricks of the mind, but one can imagine Best’s Section.1 park in the not-so-distant future, a day when half-pipers soar above the JFX while street artists colorize its support columns to the sounds of the scene’s next big thing. And someone in the crowd is hard at work untangling the possibilities of something Richard Best never imagined.