Innovation: Turning an abandoned space into an art and skateboard park
Home: Station North
Occupation: Nonprofit executive director, artist
Hobbies: Going to concerts and art openings
A vision to transform dead space into an oasis for Baltimore’s creative community
By Michael Cross-Barnet
Photography by Jim Sandoz
Richard Best moves in two worlds. There’s his rebellious side – the street art, the punk rock, the tattoos. And there’s his establishment side: business school graduate, former defense contractor, Army veteran of Afghanistan.
Best’s Baltimore-based nonprofit, Section1, merges the two distinct aspects of his personality. His first project as its executive director is an ambitious plan to turn a desolate space under the Jones Falls Expressway behind the Maryland Institute College of Art into a thriving hub connecting visual artists, musicians, skateboarders and ordinary citizens. It’s a mission that taps Best’s wide-ranging skills as an artist, business strategist, designer, engineer, networker and creative thinker.
“There’s no reason to aim small.”
“This is the job I’ve always wanted, so I made it happen,” says Best, 31, who recently completed a combined MBA/MA program in design leadership at Johns Hopkins University and MICA.
The skateboard/art park concept started when a friend of Best’s showed him the trash-filled, abandoned area under the JFX, a popular site for graffiti artists. Best soon began to sense its possibilities. The idea turned into his master’s thesis project and is now on its way to becoming what he calls the largest urban art park in the world. With permission from the MTA to use the site, a high-powered board of directors and a committed team of volunteers, Best expects to finish the cleanup phase in time for Artscape next July.
Best, a Station North resident, hopes to provide Baltimore’s thousands of street artists with an environment that welcomes rather than prosecutes them. But that’s just the beginning. Pointing to a wooded hillside, he describes the amphitheater that could go there.
In a larger space under the freeway, he envisions audiences of several thousand enjoying outdoor performances and offerings from food trucks parked nearby. A clearing near the Jones Falls could house retail space for artists to sell their wares. Community engagement at each step of the process will determine the project’s final shape.
The ultimate goal is no less than transforming Baltimore into a place that doesn’t just attract artists but keeps them here, by creating jobs and a culture that sustains and nurtures creativity. Best could have tried for something more modest, but as an artist whose preferred form of expression is the mural, he wanted Section1’s first project to make a splash. “There’s no reason to aim small,” he says. “I do big-scale work. I don’t do small things.”