the Neighborhood Design Center



April 30, 2020

Q&A: Getting Technical with the Arts Space Technical Assistance Team

The opportunity to extend our services directly to Baltimore artists and art spaces through the Arts Space Technical Assistance Program is truly an exciting moment for NDC. We’ve been in discovery since the program launched. But now it’s time to formally introduce you to the ASTA team, Karla and Marian — through a personal Q&A. 

Practicing social distancing during a site visit

Q: Karla, can you tell us a bit about the ASTA program? How did the program originate?

Karla: I’m so excited to be a part of the NDC team, to work with artists, and to develop this program. In addition to being an architect, I’m a person who loves to use my body to perform and activate space – I roller skate and bike, and I think these activities help me empathize and digest the needs of the folks we serve in our ASTA Program. 

In 2016/17, after the tragic Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, cities nationwide were startled into investigating art spaces in their own localities. Here in Baltimore, residents of the Bell Foundry were evicted by the City fearing the tenants’ safety due to the building’s fragility, for example. To prevent this scenario from happening again, Baltimore rose to the challenge to safeguard our artists and artist run spaces, and established the Mayor’s Task Force on Safe Arts Spaces. It’s from these initiatives and the work to date that NDC’s ASTA Program is born.

We work with artist owned and/or operated spaces in developing code compliant conceptual plans and offering guidance in navigating Baltimore City’s permitting and regulatory process. We also help artists and arts spaces visualize their dream-space. The mission behind the ASTA program is to give arts spaces, places, and the people who run them a chance to stabilize and grow. Art spaces are often caught in a gray area where their building or space may be a risk. ASTA offers an intermediate step out of that gray area and tries to give people the freedom and confidence to exist in their space.

Changes underway to beloved Current Space Courtyard / photo credit: Michael Benevento, Current Space

Q. Wow! I am curious to hear about the Technical Assistance you both are working on. Marian, what does ASTA look like in a COVID19 environment, especially since we are just now launching the ASTA Program at NDC?

Marian: Technical Assistance is a really sterile term for artists– it’s tough to use it to describe the holistic work Karla and I are doing. Supporting arts spaces is vital on any given day, but during COVID19, it’s even more urgent homing this work at NDC, as an organization that has a patient, gentle, and client-focused process of project-management and design!

In addition to checking in and making sure our existing clients are cared for and alright, in this COVID19 time, I’ve been wrapped up in trying to answer insecurities as they pertain to the built environment in real time, and questions that folks don’t know to ask yet. We already do a lot of crisis response work, alongside full conceptual plans and permitting process guidance, but the local “Stay-at-Home” and “Stay-of-Evictions” orders opened up a new realm of information that artists need clarity and ASTA assistance for in the short and long terms.

While knowing which permits to apply for can be confusing in itself, the advances of Covid-19 over the past month brought an additional layer of complications and questions to our projects. A number of clients anxiously expressed concern about not being able to afford their monthly rent and feared eviction. I collaborated with a group of partners to gather information from the city and organizations, condense it down, and help answer some of their critical questions. Being able to build and work with a team has helped us be able to respond holistically to our artists and arts spaces, in the long term and in the COVID19 landscape. I’m so fortunate to have daily calls with Karla as the “better half” of our team who knows how to distill the things we find out onto virtual paper as an architect and designer!

Q: How do you all even put a beginning and an end to your workdays? Karla, how has Covid-19 affected your workflow? 

Karla: My main setback in starting or pushing a project, at this point in time, is getting to know a project site with restraints on physically being able to explore and measure it. One online tool which has proven to be invaluable, is codeMap, a free and public website that maps the city’s zoning and documents if there are recent permits for properties. Shout out to Marian for showing me the light that is codeMap… she is definitely the better half here!

This website allows anyone to get a little closer to understanding the context of a building or space. Additionally, sometimes building owners or the city have copies of old architectural permit sets, as well, which allows us to begin drafting base plans without measuring it. The base plans give us a solid foundation for concept planning which the client can then use for fundraising efforts or further development with an architectural firm. 

Working from home

Q: That’s great you have found a way to maintain continuity in projects during this physically distant time. Marian, is there anything you wish the public knew about art spaces, or life in general?

Marian: My background is as an artist and educator, so I definitely believe knowledge is power! I wish that the public would know that modifying an existing building could prompt a series of code-mandated life safety building upgrades. For example, an existing residential row home needs to undergo renovations in order to become a structure where live performances and an art studio can co-exist. There are more risks involved when there are greater numbers of people occupying a single space, as opposed to a family living their day-to-day life. Artists can be inspired and empowered by working with architects to understand, envision, and enable their spaces.

Q: That makes a lot of sense. Karla, do you have another renovation example?

Karla: I would say a factory conversion! Let’s say there’s an old factory getting converted into a live work studio space. The structure itself was designed to primarily hold machinery. It will have to be renovated to safely house a number of studios and residences. It’s transitioning from a building for machines to a building for people, which, like Marian mentioned, brings different risks. 

Q-er: Another great example. Thank you both for giving us a little sneak peek into the Arts Space Technical Assistance program.