“All Dressed Up: An Artistic Showcase” and the Bromo Arts Tower reviewed by Malka Herman
As a rule, I try and visit any cultural event whose description makes me look twice. “All Dressed Up” at The Bromo Seltzer Tower in Baltimore seemed perfect. On its Facebook page, the exhibit was described as a solo showcase of drawings and paintings “which depict an array of international male entertainers in hilarious and colorful states of cross-dress.”
As you might imagine, I was intrigued. I hoped that the work would be at best provocative and at worst, informative. The exhibit, by Baltimore artist Ron Anthony, was described as a look at historical legacies of cross-dressing in theater and the influence this has on today’s entertainers. It also claimed to analyze how people with diverse backgrounds find a sense of self and success through cross-dress.
After being billed with this ‘larger than life’ status, the exhibit, housed in the lobby gallery of the Bromo Tower, did not live up to my expectations. The show consisted of around a dozen small images in thin black frames. Artist Ron Anthony uses an oil-based marker technique employing Impressionistic dots of color to form the faces of famous cross dressers through history like Dame Edna and Divine. The expressions on these character’s faces ranged from smug and secretive to bemused. Some of the pieces were black and white, but the ones in bright colors really caught my attention. Despite the small size of the portrait, there was a sense of urgency in the sweeps of Dame Edna’s pink and purple hair.
Although the composition and expressions in individual works were interesting enough, the exhibit suffered from its diminutive size and lack of explanation. As someone with little knowledge of the history of cross-dressing, I did not recognize any of the faces portrayed and had a hard time understanding what made these people so fascinating to Ron Anthony. The online description claimed to look at how cross-dressers throughout history influenced today’s entertainers but all I saw were a series of small faces with nothing but a name beneath them. The portraits emphasized the expressions of their subject effectively, but there was no context within the portraits to communicate their identity or roles on stage. Each piece would have benefitted significantly from a few sentences of concise wall text, so that I could fully participate with the content presented.
Besides a lack of explanation, the exhibit space looked more like a classroom or hallway than a showcase space. Even on a limited budget, I think the Bromo could have done more than place cheap looking candelabras with tall red candlesticks by the windows alongside a plastic water cooler. These objects were distracting, instead of adding to the feel of the exhibit space. The Bromo might have considered ways to make this space look more like an exhibition with better lighting and spacing. In addition, the taupe colored walls and small size of the pictures did not reflect their over-the-top content. For me, the curation lacked consistency and purpose. I left feeling like there was potential in the artwork but that the space did not properly showcase it.
Since we reserved an hour to visit the exhibit, and finished in twenty minutes, my friend and I decided to speak with Betsy Stone, the Bromo Exhibits and Studio Rental Coordinator. She works for the Baltimore Office of Promotions & the Arts; we asked her about the organization’s goals for this historic landmark reinvented as an arts destination.
“Our main focus is the arts,” she told us. “We have fifteen floors of artists, designers, jewelers. We have a playwright and a fashion designer. Predominantly this building is meant to promote the arts. We have exhibits on the lower level and then whatever other spaces we have, we open up for artists to rent.”
Stone was clearly passionate about the future activities coming to The Bromo Tower. She described a fashion show that a resident fashion designer and artisan jeweler are putting on together and a musical open-mic night called “Sounds of the Tower” coming soon. The point of all these activities, she said, is to bring more people in to engage with local artists.
“It’s really been building up,” Stone said. “We had opened the building for artist studios and then we starting bringing people in to take a peek at the clock, so we started the history tours. The number of people visiting is amazing. We’ve had about 4,000 people come in just on Saturdays for this fiscal year. I think that’s pretty good!”
She added that she keeps track of the visitors and has noticed that they are evenly split between those going on the historical tours and those coming to visit artists studios. In her eyes, this means the Bromo Tower has “struck a good balance for the building being able to present the two different sides: the historical and artistic.”
At Betsy’s urging, we decided to join the clock tower tour and then visited some of the artists’ studios. After the tour and more examples of art, though, I still felt dissatisfied. The building feels distinctly pulled between the two goals it is trying to accomplish – paying homage to a historical Baltimore landmark and its reinvention as a creative space for artists- and would benefit more if it fully committed to one or the other.
Although the historical tour was interesting, it seemed at odds with the artistic side of the tower. There was a distinctly touristy vibe as the guide told anecdotes of Captain Isaac Emerson, the builder of the tower. He was a wealthy and flamboyant businessman who created the “Bromo Seltzer” headache remedy and had a tumultuous relationship with his first wife, Emelie. Actually, his bold persona seemed similar to the purported subject of the exhibit downstairs, and the contrast between Emerson and the diminutive exhibit downstairs seemed ironic. The overall commercial feel of the tour only made the tower seem more like a destination for tourists and less like the artistic landmark that the Baltimore Office of Promotion and Arts would like it to be.
After visiting the impressive clock tower, we decided to slip away from the group and see the rest of the studios. Both Betsy and the tour guide promised us that this tower was an artistic space, dedicated to promoting creative and artistic enterprises. Like the cross dressing exhibit at the beginning, however, most of the art we saw was small and lacking in presence. Many of the works were well made but came off as populist and cliché. The art I observed included photographs of horses and watercolor paintings of ponds. We neither loved nor hated the paintings, photography, and clothing we saw, but nothing challenged me either. It seemed designed for more sales rather than a conversation. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but, in both the exhibition and studio tour, the Bromo could have more accurately presented its artistic offerings to the audience to prevent unfortunate gaps between expectations and reality.
Perhaps my problem with The Bromo Tower is the same thing Stone is so proud of: the balance between the historical, tourism, and artistic purposes creates a space that is meant to appeal to the masses and this seems to exclude more experimental forms of art.
Can a historic building be an accessible destination for tourists and also a center for creativity and experimentation in the arts? Is there a way for this destination to cater to a general audience as well as the contemporary art community? Or, are there different art communities for different audiences and does this space need to be clearer in its intentions? Perhaps the Bromo Tower would be better used as non-profit office spaces or a museum of Baltimore history. As an artistic landmark, it doesn’t yet land on its mark.
Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower
21 S Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201
Malka Herman is a Baltimore based writer with an unhealthy interest in music, theatre, and art that makes her uncomfortable.