Photography by David Stuck
On a quiet weeknight in 2001, Megan Hamilton was stepping out of the Creative Alliance’s brand-new location at the Patterson Theater in Highlandtown when a pickup truck screeched to a halt and an irate fellow stuck his head out to holler at her.
“I’m like, ‘Hello?’ And the guy goes, ‘Why isn’t that marquee on?’ So I explain, ‘Because we don’t have a show today.’ And he’s like, ‘I had out-of-town guests and I brought them down here the other night to show them that marquee—and it was completely dark,’” Hamilton reminisces with a laugh. “We went on to have a very nice conversation.
”The anecdote tells a story of local pride; it also speaks to the organization’s far-reaching effect on our city’s diverse population. Co-founded as a nonprofit in 1995 by Hamilton (who is the program director), her friend Margaret Footner, who’s still the organization’s executive director, and Daniel Schiavone, the theater’s original artistic director (replaced by Jed Dodds in 1999), the Creative Alliance remains a space dedicated to showcasing—and spreading the word about—Baltimore’s fierce creativity.
In November, Hamilton, 57—the statuesque, self-proclaimed “outlaw by nature” with the wild-and-wavy gray hair and well-worn cowboy boots—plans to take her final bow, as Josh Kohn, 33, a D.C. transplant who leaves his program-officer post at the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, formally steps in. Hamilton has decided to apply her enormous energy far away in the Peace Corps, but her legacy will always light up that marquee.
Back in the early ’90s, the recent Goucher grad and Evanston, Ill., native, was writing art criticism for Baltimore City Paper and luxuriating in what she labels the little-known but ultra-impressive Baltimore art and band scene of the time.
“After Goucher, I moved downtown and immediately got locked and loaded with a really interesting group of young artists that were doing street-based performance and a lot of wild stuff. They went to Three Mile Island when it was melting down,” says Hamilton, who then realized there was a vast chasm between the artistic types who were producing great work and, well, everyone else in the city.
“I knew we’d have an uphill battle,” she says of deciding to launch a downtown venue that focused almost exclusively on homegrown talent. “Back then, ‘local’ was considered a code word for ‘bad.’ People thought, ‘If it’s art from here, it’s going to suck. If it’s not on the cover of Slate or Time, it can’t be any good.”
Fast-forward more than two decades, skipping past the dedicated trio’s temporary residence in several locations, including an old Moose lodge on Highland Avenue and the rat-infested Pep Boys warehouse on Conkling (where they dubbed the hard-to-ignore stench of recently deceased “alley buffalo” Eau du Creative Alliance).
Now we have a hard-won performance space that regularly presents our town’s best musicians, like Todd Marcus, Lafayette Gilchrist, Arty Hill, Caleb Stine and Anne Watts. Plus, so much more—from dance parties to eclectic art exhibits to the lovely Halloween Lantern Parade and other family-friendly programming. And, of course, the infamous burlesque shows that are so popular with young Cantonites. (“We’re not too fussy about what gets people in the door,” says Hamilton, with a laugh.)
CA also has partnered with Southeast Community Development Corp., area schools, churches and other neighborhood groups to expand its reach. “Our work with the local immigrant and refugee community has been profound,” she says.
It’s a perfect time, in Hamilton’s opinion, to bring her successor onboard, as Kohn is uniquely qualified to help give the Creative Alliance a more global focus.
“What we’re doing in Baltimore is so awesome, but it’s just that—in Baltimore,” Hamilton says. “This community needs to be connected with a broader world. Josh has a solid web of connections—musicians, agents and venues—from all over the country and the world. He can bring amazing people to Baltimore and have them get to know our amazing performers and audiences. And at 33, he can still stay up late and drink beer… how glorious is that?”
Kohn cut his teeth as a tour promoter for the National Council for the Traditional Arts in Silver Spring, Md., an organization founded in the 1930s, where he was instrumental in changing the snoozy programming approach (think: musicals for the early bird dinner crowd) to something much more happening.
“We brought in a lot of hip-hop,” Kohn says of the gig, where he planned many large-scale cultural festivals. “I took D.C. go-go music up to Maine, which was insanity. I brought down Inuit throat singers and a 90-year-old fiddler from West Virginia, who were really embraced by a younger community. I think by the end of my tenure, there was this really strong sense that these festivals were for everybody, not just a single, old-folky audience. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”
No wonder Hamilton feels so secure entrusting the Patterson to a young pro with such a quirky, crowd-packing history—and a shared belief in the power of live performance to be not only entertaining and thought-provoking, but, in some rare cases, transformational.
“The risk in going to a live performance is higher than going to a film or whatever,” she says. “But the potential reward is exponentially greater. You could make critical friendships. You could change someone else’s life. You could learn a message that you take into your school, your church, your voting booth. That’s a lot of what we’re about.”
“That deeply transformative thing doesn’t always happen,” adds Kohn. “But when it does, it’s extremely powerful. As both a fan and a presenter, I’m always on that quest.”
While Hamilton may be nostalgic for those days a decade or two back when she could rock out till all hours with performing artists, her next role doesn’t sound exactly cushy. Next year, she accepts her Peace Corps appointment. As of right now, Albania seems the likely destination.
So what will she miss most about the post-industrial town she’s called home longer than any other place—and the theater where she has danced and dreamed for decades?
“I don’t think I can even envision that,” she says more quietly than usual.
“I do know that on some rainy, cold day wherever I end up, I will be crying my eyes out missing my home and my people.”