On Community Service

i realize now that, back when i wrote the reply to this message (a handful of questions sent to me via the hac’s myspace page), my mind had already been made up to step down from the board. this was perhaps two weeks ago, or a week or so prior to when i submitted my resignation. it’s worth a read for those interested in creating their own d.i.y. space.

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Here are some answers to your questions you sent to our MySpace account; hopefully they’re sufficient.
1. When/how did the Hamilton Arts Collective begin and why?

I’d been working with a grassroots community theatre group in the same building in which we operate now starting in January of 2003, and that theatre company dissolved at the end of February 2006. We were very close to completing the paperwork needed to become a non-profit organization, so I decided to keep things going in that same space. I started the Hamilton Arts Collective (the HAC) with a handful of other creative friends of mine in March of 2006. We were all a bunch of theatre, music-making, and filmmaking junkies, and we liked the idea of hosting our own shows. While in the theatre company, I’d created a model for a hosting program for artists that needed a place to perform, and we decided to carry on that model into the future. Later we partnered with several groups, most notably the Herring Run Artists Network, who were instrumental in creating the art gallery we have. Other performance-based partnerships (such as with Baltimore Improv Group, MT6 Records, and Hole In The Wall Cabaret) all came about eventually because we’d hosted several shows of theirs over time.

Our mission statement has stayed the same ever since we started this: create a safe space for performers of all types to present their works; promote our neighbourhood creative pursuits and businesses by bringing activity to the area; keep everything as affordable as possible to all involved. It’s been great for our area, and it’s a mission statement I can truly stand behind.

2. What are the advantages/disadvantages of being a DIY space – how have you dealt with problems in the past?

The main advantage is that you can do whatever the hell you want to do. Want to have a zombie b-horror movie marathon? No problem. Want to host a live music show featuring bands you’ve never heard before? Absolutely. Want to host a board game night and potluck? Go right ahead.

Of course, the disadvantages emerge once the authorities catch wind that you’re having public assembly in a space they deem unsafe for large groups of people.

3. Have you ever faced any problems with the law/licensing issues?

Quite a few actually, and in fact our performance space is currently closed for renovation now that we need to address a laundry list of fire-code compliance issues presented to us by the fire inspector. I remember the week the captain of the northeast district of police came up to the performance space while I was readying it for a show; he brought the sergeant in charge of permits and licenses up with him on his second visit that week, and in a matter of minutes said the space was closed down. Just like that, our months of work vaporized. It was pretty heartbreaking to me, personally.

When we started the HAC, we had no idea what we were doing. We didn’t care or investigate things such as zoning policies, local ordinances, fire code laws, or any other regulations. The only concerns of ours, honestly, were making sure the theatre space was smoke free, there was no under-age drinking (we were a BYOB establishment), and there were no illegal drugs. We figured that the latter two reasons were the only way we would have been shut down.

I really think the only reason we were shut down, in fact, was that we’d started to become successful. We’d generated a lot of positive attention to our neighbourhood, and our show calendar was packed months in advance. We’d set up space-sharing partnerships and regular gigs with upstanding, reputable groups in town, such as the partnerships mentioned earlier. But perhaps if we’d stayed a little more small-time, we would have survived longer. Now that we’re out in the open and actually attempting to become legitimate, the city has stepped in, requiring us to pay for licenses, building renovations, and permits we simply can’t afford. If we refuse to comply, they’ll just bring in the cops again.

In the meantime, I’ve been hosting shows once a month in my backyard, using the HAC’s sound system to amplify the live music and films we show. It’s more like a house party than anything else, complete with bonfire, s’mores, a tent in the event it rains or snows, and a potluck/BYOB acumen for which everyone contributes. The shows have been very well-received, and although I think their time is coming to an end, I’ve not regretted investing my time and energy into them.

4. How has the poor economy affected the HAC?

I’m concerned about the solvency of the art gallery, to be honest, as they’ve not been able to turn a profit by selling their works. But the truth remains that Baltimore is brimming over with talent, and as we’d operated with low costs anyway (charging five bucks admission for most shows, and splitting all profits with the performers 50/50), I’m confident that we would still have our calendar packed each month and we’d pay the bills on time, no problem. We’re all volunteers, so it’s not like we wouldn’t be able to afford to pay our staff; the events we host are compensation in themselves.

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i was interviewed earlier in the year by an acquaintance of mine and talented young man, nicky o. smith. he later used the interview in a short film project. although it was criticized as somewhat lacking in terms of coverage and depth of relevant information (it didn’t include material featuring members of the longest-running, currently open d.i.y. space in baltimore), it still contains a variety of first-person accounts of maintaining a d.i.y. space and is well worth a look. also, he made it appear as though i’m not a complete idiot whenever i open my mouth, which is an impressive accomplishment by any measure.

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