A Little Big Town: Creative Opportunities Abound In Baltimore City

Panelists speak at Impact Hub Baltimore’s Small Business Summit. Screenshot via @impacthub_baltimore on Instagram.

With a population of about 575,000 people, Baltimore City is like a big city and a small town, which has become a draw for ambitious twenty-somethings looking to maintain a low cost of living. 

“You can afford to take a chance on trying to make something happen here without the crushing economic pressure of New York City or Washington D.C.,” said Michelle Geiss, co-founder of Impact Hub Baltimore, a co-working space in Station North that caters to innovators and entrepreneurs. 

A creative hub for emerging artists 

Baltimore is home to a robust arts and culture scene with several organizations dedicated to supporting emerging artists, including the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts (BOPA), said arts council director, Jocquelyn Downs. 

“The arts and culture sector here is such an amazing scene, and one of the best in the Mid-Atlantic,” Downs said. “It’s quirky, it’s underground, it’s everyday. The whole gamut is here.”

Aside from serving as the city’s Arts Council and events organizer, BOPA works directly with artists to provide professional development. It also doles out a half million dollars in grant funding each year. 

The nonprofit focuses much of its one-on-one outreach on helping artists understand their creative pursuits as a business in order to secure funding. They also invite artists to the table as panel reviewers so they can learn and contribute to how funding decisions are made. “We want to help them understand that this money is here for them. We want our artists to stay in Baltimore. We want to see them grow here,” Downs said.

The creative community in Baltimore is also one that celebrates multidisciplinary pursuits, which Downs considers a win for young artists who want to learn without being tied down to one medium. Universities such as Johns Hopkins University, Goucher College, and the Maryland Institute College of Arts offer arts-related masters programs. 

Many young professionals interested in art, but who aren’t artists themselves, volunteer at some of the countless city-funded festivals and events that take place each year. 

Museum-goers mingle at BOPA’s Emerge Baltimore exhibit celebrating new talent in the city. Screenshot via @promoandarts on Instagram.

Abundant options for networking and socializing

Professionally, there are ample opportunities for young people to plug in like becoming board members of local organizations, according to Sean Sutherland, the chief marketing officer at Baltimore-based marketing agency Kapowza. 

Sutherland moved to the Baltimore area about 13 years ago, and he’s since built a strong professional network through groups such as the Arc Luminaries, the Humanim Impact Leaders Network, the Alman Foundation, and the Port Discovery Children’s Museum Explorer’s Council. While Sutherland’s membership in these groups has allowed him to expand his network and bring in new clients, he’s also made friends with other transplants and found opportunities to give back in the city he’s grown to love over the past decade. 

“Everyone is coming here for different reasons, but we’ve all come to the same conclusion that Baltimore is a space that deserves support, and there are plenty of missions that align with whatever your interests are.”

Mike Drake, a new member of a group called Volunteering Untapped, was drawn to Baltimore for its lively restaurant and bar scene, recreational sports leagues, and variety of museums and historical locations to explore. Many places “are unique and create a nice social atmosphere,” Drake said. “I really enjoy being next to Patterson Park. I take my dog for a walk out there, and I talk to people there every day.” 

Baltimore’s positioning near Washington D.C. and corporate centers in Columbia, Md. also allows young professionals to experience life in a city at a lower cost with only a short commute to nearby job opportunities, Drake said. And for those who want to travel, access to a major airport like BWI is a significant benefit. 

Volunteering Untapped members organize supplies at a project site. Screenshot via @volunteeringuntapped on Instagram.

Obstacles to maintaining community

While Baltimore has many opportunities, those who control them are still adapting to a younger generation of leaders and their calls for systemic change. Resources and funding remain concentrated among the city’s historically wealthy families, companies, and institutions. Navigating that environment can prove challenging for entrepreneurs outside of those circles. 

“There are pretty entrenched power dynamics and resource dynamics that come from our industrial past, where the city still leans on old school institutions and leadership models to manage resources…compared to other cities where the money may come from entrepreneur activity like in the Bay Area or New York or Austin,” Geiss said. 

Though the arts community already has a strong network, Downs noted it’s an ongoing challenge for organizations to connect with new artists.

“The only reason I knew about these young professional networks is because I was plugged in and a tireless networker, so when they were getting started, I already had alerts set up and people reaching out to me,” Sutherland said. “That’s not true for everybody. I definitely think that’s a barrier, and I think a lot of groups are conscious of that, especially when it comes to the professional development side.” But, he added, it’s an obstacle that many young professionals organizations across the city are actively attempting to address by expanding their outreach to people beyond their usual social and job circles.

Baltimore also has a reputation for high crime rates—perpetuated by much of the media coverage of the city—which could dissuade some young adults from starting their careers in the city, said Sutherland. But he acknowledged that Baltimore isn’t the only city that struggles with crime, and he said he believes that it has more good to offer than bad. 

“I choose to believe that there’s enough people here working to better this community, and that’s what I want to be involved in.” 

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