By MARY CAROLE MCCAULEY, March 18, 2017
For someone whose entire life is devoted to creating, looking at, writing about and showcasing visual images, Baltimore journalist Cara Ober expresses an opinion that surprises even her.
"I think I like artists better than I like art," says Ober, the founder of the BmoreArt website and magazine, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month.
"I see so much art all the time and I feel interested in perhaps 20 percent of it. ... But the way artists process information, the way they survive, the way they enrich every place they live is fascinating."
Ober is aware that hers is a minority view. Gallery owners and museum administrators publicly claim to love, cherish and adore artists, but as she points out, many secretly believe artists are a pain in the neck.
"Most museums don't really like living artists all that much," Ober says. "Sometimes artists make last-minute changes to their work. They challenge the rules and basically drive curators crazy."
The exchange is typical of both Ober and the publication she puts out — funny, astute, lively and a bit outrageous. And it demonstrates how she's managed to create from scratch a publication that has become a must-read for those eager to know every detail about Baltimore's visual art scene.
"The common stereotype is that artists are useless to anyone but themselves," Ober says. "That's just not true. There should be artists in government, artists planning our roadway infrastructure and artists designing our educational system. The creative makers are the glue that binds a community together."
At various times, Ober — a 42-year-old woman with shoulder-length blond hair and a wry, expressive mouth — has worked as an artist (she has a solo opening later this month at Howard Community College), curator, journalist, professor and critic. But her super power may be as a community organizer who uses her skills to unite and empower Baltimore's vibrant and diverse creative class.
Earlier this month, for example, BmoreArt launched a professional development speaker series for artists that will tackle everything from how to develop productive relationships with gallery owners to securing funding for projects. About 150 people reserved tickets for the inaugural event at the Motor House in Station North, where the publication's office is located.
Baltimore artist Sanzi Kermes says that Ober has created "a platform for those in the Baltimore art scene who are looking for a level of serious discussion around what we do."
"Cara is very intentional. She's always asking questions. We are building a real art community here in Baltimore, and Cara is at the center of it."
Not only do Ober and her BmoreArt staff review virtually every art show opening in Baltimore, they profile and interview artists and keep an exhaustive calendar of events. They write essays about quirky topics, such as why artists always wear black, and on more substantive matters, such as whether Baltimore's Civil War monuments should be removed.
In one particularly controversial (and well-read) article, titled "Why You're Not Selling Any Artwork," Ober argued that the art community can be too insular.
"In an age when even art language has evolved to be exclusive and make people feel stupid," Ober wrote, "artists need to be conscious of the message we are sending to those outside of our community because we won't survive without them."
When Ober co-founded BmoreArt in 2007 with friends from graduate school, she says, it was the city's first independent, local visual arts blog. In 2012, after the free monthly magazine Urbanite folded, Ober expand the website's scope in an effort to fill that gap.
"Urbanite left a huge void in the coverage of the arts," Ober says.
"New galleries and arts groups were popping up all over town and no one was writing about them. I take my role as an archivist really seriously. If a show goes on and no one writes about it, it's like it never existed. The worst thing for an artist is to make work and put it out in the world and have no one react to it at all."
For Ober, working on the website was deeply satisfying and exhausting. (She also taught at her alma mater, the Maryland Institute College of Art, creates her own work and is the mother of a now 6-year-old son.) But she found herself longing for her writing to have a physical, tangible counterpart. It would make what she produced that much more solid.
As she tells the story, she's always loved magazines and has dabbled in the form since her childhood in Westminster.
"When I was in the fourth grade, my best friend Kasim McLain and I made a whole series of about 10 illustrated books," Ober says.
"Our teacher let us stay inside during recess. Instead of playing, we'd write stories together. We did one about a reindeer who saved Christmas. I can picture us sitting in a little desk laughing and cracking ourselves up. You get older and you try to figure out what you should do with your life. But it seems so obvious now, looking back."
Ober graduated from Washington's American University in 1996 with a bachelor's degree in fine arts and from MICA in 2005 with a master's degree in painting. Though she knew a lot about art, no one had taught her how to publish a magazine.
"After Urbanite died, I worked my butt off for a year to get advertisers," she says. "I thought I'd charge them just half of what the Urbanite charged, but I got almost no money. It was an utter failure. After a year of publishing almost every day, my husband said, 'What are you doing? We can't afford this. We have a child.'
"I thought, 'OK, I don't think I can keep doing this.' About a week later, I got an invite from Jane to have lunch."
"Jane" is Jane Brown, president of the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation. Brown says the foundation sought to invest in small, start-up arts projects as a way to revitalize the city.
"I looked at a couple of online publications," Brown says, "but they were not organized and didn't seem completely committed.
"Then, I found BmoreArt. I saw what Cara was doing and realized, 'Oh my God, she's been toiling away in the trenches for seven years. She's writing about and reviewing everything that comes up, and she's doing it with no resources at all.'"
With seed money provided by the Deutsch Foundation, Ober hired three part-time staff members and four interns and published BmoreArt's first biannual issue in November 2015. The magazine, which costs $15 and is available at independent booksellers and museum gift shops, was sumptuously photographed and printed on heavy paper that was as pleasing to touch as it was to look at.
Craig Schiffert, an area resident and freelance historian, attended a launch party for the magazine's third issue last fall at the Walters Art Museum. He was so impressed with the publication that he sent Ober an email that he later shared with The Baltimore Sun. He described BmoreArt as unique: smart but not insider, challenging but not off-putting, attentive to both high art and popular culture, and diverse in a way that reflects Baltimore.
"You have a very good product that deserves national attention," Schiffert wrote."You have a natural and rich niche angle (Baltimore) that the magazine should never stray from, showing universalism but always emphasizing regionalism. ... How refreshing, coming from the art world!"
Given the degree to which Ober is embedded in the visual art community, she was the natural person to approach when two art world heavyweights wanted to organize a two-day tour of Baltimore art studios.
The opportunity for working artists to have their paintings inspected by new Baltimore Museum of Art director Christopher Bedford and Miami-based collector Mera Rubell was a very big deal. One-hundred ninety artists applied to be included in the two-day studio tour. Bedford and Rubell had time to visit just 22.
Organizing the tour was an immense amount of work, and Rubell urged Ober to reserve one of those precious slots for herself — especially since Ober was putting the finishing touches on her solo show.
"I told Cara, 'One of those 22 studio visits has to be you,'" Rubell says.
"Cara said, 'That's impossible. Don't be ridiculous. I can't present myself.' I kept pressing her, 'C'mon, this is all about Christopher getting to know Baltimore artists. I've seen your work, but he hasn't.'
"But I could not convince her to bring us to her studio. For Cara, this is not about self-promotion. She's interested in carrying the torch for all of the other artists in Baltimore."
Ober likes to think that Bedford can see her art any time he wants; he just has to stroll over to his museum's gift shop and pick up the latest issue of BmoreArt.
"When I first told people that I wanted to do a print magazine," she says, "everyone kept saying I was crazy. 'Print is dead. Print is expensive. Don't do it.'
"But, an artist says, 'I want this thing to be in the world. I don't know why, but I'm going to figure out how to make it exist.' That's what an artist does."
Who: Founder and editor, BmoreArt
Education: Bachelor's degree in fine arts, American University, Washington, in 1996. Master's degree in painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art, 2005
Personal: Married to Thomas Bowen. Their son, Leo, is 6.
Upcoming: "Tragicomedy," a solo show of Ober's artwork, runs March 30-May 1 at the Horowitz Center at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. A reception will be held from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. April 6. Free. howardcc.edu.