The drab brick rowhomes that swath the city’s landscape, speckled with neon signs glowing from corner-bar windows and gray waterfront warehouses, stain the outsider’s picture of blue-collar Baltimore – or Mobtown, harking back to the city’s boisterous past. But to those observing from street level, that picture could not be further from the truth: vivacious murals bookend many blocks of rowhomes, while statues of historical figures and local galleries seemingly equal the number of corner pubs, which themselves serve as a haven for many local artists and often feature artwork
“Baltimore has a really vibrant, alive art scene,” says Marcia Semmes, Executive Director of Maryland Lawyers for the Arts (MLA), a non-profit organization that was organized in the mid-1980s to provide income-eligible artists and art organizations with pro bono legal services and lawyer referrals. Since that time, MLA has occupied the role of minesweeper for Charm City’s resident right-brain creators, ensuring a safe path in making the artists’ visions a reality.
“We are all about supporting artists in professional development,” explains E. Scott Johnson, MLA chair from 1990-98. “It’s hard to make a living in the arts – very hard.”
Johnson’s assessment comes firsthand, as prior to his legal career he was as a musician and music producer in California. When this jazz pianist became an attorney in the late 1980s, he brought his friends along to his new gig. Musicians Leon Redbone, Ricky Skaggs and others were, at times, his musical accompaniment; now they are his clients. The Baltimore-based attorney maintains his strong ties to the west coast, but a major part of his practice is centered on Charm City. He represents local radio station WYPR, a publishing company, and advises countless local artists.
In 1978, the city commissioned local artist James Earl Reid to build a statue of famous Baltimore jazz singer Billie Holiday; however, Reid was noticeably absent from the 1985 unveiling ceremony on the city’s west side. Reid protested, arguing that the displayed product did not fully portray his vision – the social context with which Holiday’s notoriety is invariably tied to was absent from bronze statue. Thirty years after the statue was commissioned, Johnson, an Entertainment and Intellectual Property attorney at Ober Kaler, took up Reid’s struggle through MLA. With Johnson’s guidance, Reid met with City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and eventually received approval to complete his artwork in its entirety.
MLA currently has a stable of about 100 attorneys – though it can reach about 300 through its firm sponsorships – through which artists and organizations that meet the requirements (less than $40,000 income per year for individual artists; a budget of less than $150,000 per year) are able to sidestep many pitfalls that befall their plight.
“I’ve been impressed with the resources our panel of attorneys can bring to bear,” says Semmes, who came aboard in May 2007.
Earlier this year, an aerial-artist contacted MLA in search of an attorney to answer some insurance and liability questions. This was a rare instance for Semmes and MLA, but true-to-form, she put out the call to her stable of attorneys – and someone with experience in a trapeze-case responded.
“We’ve always found someone,” Semmes continues. “Incorporating a 501(c)(3) is a lot of work for [a pro bono attorney] to take on, but someone has always stepped up.”
The Mount Rainier troupe Dance Now is the latest organization to draw upon MLA attorneys to incorporate to non-profit status. Based just outside of Washington, D.C., Dance Now presumably contacted MLA due to the Baltimore-based organization’s prior success in placing similar requests; however, while MLA has a considerable list of attorneys eager to help, that reach only encompasses the Baltimore metropolitan area. Semmes would like to see that change in the near future.
“The more accessible [MLA] is,” pines Semmes, “the more [clients] are going to use it. So our goal is to make it more accessible.”
Though greater-accessibility is her future intent, MLA recently took a major stride toward that goal with the creation and distribution of the Arts Brief. With a professional background in journalism, as well as an attorney, Semmes began constructing the newsletter after only a few months on the job. The inaugural issue was mailed both as a hard copy and electronically to MLA members, clients and general-interest parties. The newsletter will be issued quarterly and is available on the MLA website, www.mdartslaw.org.
MLA partnered with MSBA’s Young Lawyer Section (YLS) to celebrate the release of Arts Brief with a party at Lemongrass in Fells Point. About 500 people attended as members of both groups mingled and established a mutually beneficial relationship. Semmes recalls YLS Chair Michael Siri telling her how much he enjoys talking with people outside the legal profession; in keeping, she equally enjoys bringing the artists to lawyers.
“It’s a really cool connection,” Semmes says. “With the newsletter, we’re trying to raise awareness in the arts community, that [our] services are available. But the fun parties are the way we’re trying to raise awareness within the legal community – that we are a happening organization again.”
MLA was originally conceived in 1985, but after a decade-and-a-half of aiding the artistic community, it inexplicably went idle. In 2004, MLA saw new life thanks to the appropriately-named Fred Lazarus, president of the Maryland Institute College of Art. He, along with attorneys from MLA’s original incarnation (including Johnson) and Nancy Haragan from the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, felt that the organization produced too much good to go unused. This contingent helped raise enough money through sponsors to ensure MLA’s longevity, which included, among other things, an Executive Director and office space, donated by MICA, in the Station North District.
MLA, Version 2.0, hit the ground running under indie-filmmaker and law student Cheryl Fair, who moved on after graduating from law school in May 2007. The organization continued to hinge on its traditional features, including the educational outreach workshops that run once a year for filmmakers, writers, musicians and visual artists. Guest speakers advise the attending artists on a number of necessities and proven complications. At the filmmaker’s workshop held this past February at the Creative Alliance in Highlandtown, Johnson and representatives from the Maryland Film Office discussed a litany of troublesome legal areas for indie-filmmakers, including Fair Use, Public Domain, Copyright and Music Distribution.
“The legal work is the same for a $2.5 million film or a $25,000 film,” says Johnson, who often worked with the production crew of television’s Homicide: Life on the Street.