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Last week, an anonymous complaint was made against the conditions at the Bell Foundry, a historic building in Baltimore’s Station North Arts and Entertainment District that has served as a creative hub for a growing community of artists since 2009. This complaint, filed shortly after the tragic fire at the Ghost Ship in Oakland, resulted in a surprise inspection, during which numerous code violations were found. These violations were deemed sufficiently severe that the building was forcibly vacated and all activities were suspended. Over a dozen artists that lived and worked on the top floor were evicted, and the Baltimore Rock Opera Society operations were shut down.
Since 2013, the first floor of the Bell Foundry has been the home and headquarters of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society. We are a collective of artists, musicians, writers, and actors with the mission to produce the most insane spectacles of rock n’ roll theater possible. When we signed a commercial lease with the Bell Foundry four years ago, we committed ourselves to the massive undertaking of renovating the ground floor into a place where we could build, rehearse, socialize, and grow our community. With little more than some donated materials and the drive to get it done, we built a rehearsal stage, workshop, costume shop, common room, kitchen, office, and storage facility for all of our original creations. We finally had a home.
As of Tuesday December 13th, the doors to BROS Headquarters are closed. While our own space had only a few minor violations, it has been made clear to us that the halt in our own operations is “collateral damage.” The gas and electric service have been shut off and the building has been declared vacant. Although city officials have expressed interest in working with BROS to get the building up to code compliance, we currently remain unable to work in our space on our productions, which puts our organization in very real danger.
We understand that the current situation with the Bell Foundry is a no-win situation for all involved. The City of Baltimore was in the unenviable position of deciding between turning a blind eye to a potentially dangerous environment and making themselves culpable in any consequences from that decision, or shutting down a cultural hub and evicting the building’s residents. While we are very concerned about the way the situation was handled and are critical of the city’s inspection and eviction process, we hope that it was done with the intention of ensuring the safety of the Bell Foundry residents.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t make us feel any better about it, and it’s not the first time we’ve dealt with this kind of thing.
Between 2010 and 2013 BROS put huge amounts of labor, time, and funds into improving the Autograph Playhouse, which is where we produced some of our best work. We cleaned up and improved every aspect of the theatre we could: we painted the walls, built a new stage, rehabbed the lobby, and evicted a COLONY of rats, all with volunteer labor. During our production of MURDERCASTLE in 2013, the building was almost shut down just a few days before opening night because the Autograph did not comply with fire code. In the eleventh hour, we worked on making enough changes to allow the show to open, to rave reviews, but ultimately we were forced to forfeit everything we built because the Autograph Playhouse’s management never obtained a use and occupancy permit. It was a crushing blow to our operation and morale.
Does this sound familiar? If you’re an artist it probably does. If you’re one of our over 300 members it definitely does, because it is happening again.
Currently our programming, including feature-length rock operas, is effectively halted (with the exception of our New Year's Eve show at the Ottobar). Despite adhering to our lease and supplying labor to drastically improve the space we were still forced to close the doors to BROS HQ because we are not in control of our own space. and not in control of our future. We have been moved and humbled by the outpouring of support we’ve seen over the last week from dozens of organizations and individuals offering us everything from temporary workspace to legal counsel, but ultimately our fate depends on the actions of the Bell Foundry’s owners and city officials.
We are once again not in control of our future, and we are mad as hell about it.
In December of 2017 the BROS lease of the first floor of the Bell Foundry will expire. In order to remain a part of the Baltimore arts community and seize control of the fate of our organization, we must have a space in which to operate, and we must be able to keep our doors open. That is why as of today, we are launching a fundraising campaign for $75,000 in order to acquire our own space, owned and operated by us, where we can work, create, perform, and continue to expand and serve our community of artists and supporters in Baltimore. We are calling this future home “The Paradise,” which is indeed a nod to Brian De Palma's cult film "Phantom of the Paradise." Our vision for The Paradise will offer multiple opportunities for technicians, craftspeople, and artists to become leaders, learn new skills and integrate themselves in the social fabric of Baltimore through a multi-use arts and performance space.
BROS will be conducting this fundraising campaign for the next several months. We have no illusions about the scale of this endeavor, and that is why we will need all the help we can get. We will be conducting our campaign with the help of Crowdrise, a crowdsourcing fundraising site, that will allow direct donations as well as coordinate the efforts of any of our supporters who may be inclined to conduct their own fundraising. You want to throw a concert and donate the proceeds to BROS? Sign up and do it. Bake sale? That’ll work. Do you want to make and sell a calendar of baby pigs dressed as characters from BROS shows? Please somebody do that. If you would like to get involved in this endeavor in any way, please do not hesitate to reach out to us.
The BROS are no strangers to adversity. In fact, it’s one of the things we deal with best. We are confident that we will come out of this mess bigger, stronger, and greater, but BROS cannot continue producing art without owning the means of producing it. Above all else, we are now convinced this means we must find a permanent home for our organization where we are in control of our operations and space. We are asking you to support us in realizing this goal.
For more information about the BROS Campaign for Cash and our dreams for The Paradise please visit crowdrise.com/brosforeverhome.
Article photos from top to bottom: Faith Layla Bocian, Heather Keating, Greg Bowen