Baltimore Natural Dye Initiative
Baltimore Natural Dye Initiative
Maryland’s First Lady, Yumi Hogan, visited the Natural Dyeing Culture Center in her hometown of Naju, South Korea and came away inspired. Hogan, an artist herself, returned home and began working with the Maryland State Arts Council to explore how to bring the art of natural dye to Maryland. The State Arts Council, in turn,…
Maryland Institute College of Art, Maryland State Arts Council, Maryland Department of Commerce
Public Funding Includes
Maryland Department of Commerce: Maryland State Arts Council grants
Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development: Baltimore Regional Neighborhood Initiative grant
Maryland Agricultural & Resource Based-Industry Development Corporation: Grant funds
Maryland’s First Lady, Yumi Hogan, visited the Natural Dyeing Culture Center in her hometown of Naju, South Korea and came away inspired. Hogan, an artist herself, returned home and began working with the Maryland State Arts Council to explore how to bring the art of natural dye to Maryland. The State Arts Council, in turn, approached the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) with an offer of funding and a request for ideas.
Kevin Griffin Moreno, MICA Director of Strategic Projects, attributes the opportunity to MICA’s strong relationships with the State Arts Council and other entities. He noted that the state does not typically have extra funds on-hand for creative placemaking. MICA’s care and cultivation for its strategic relationships meant they were at the table when a rare opportunity arose. “It happens more than you think. People reach out and see if you have ideas,” said MICA Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Sheri Parks. She believes other agencies and the community see MICA as a trusted partner, which helps invite opportunities: “A lot of this is about trust and the way you build trust is not just to talk, but to do and to follow through with what you say you are going to do.”
The Baltimore Natural Dye Initiative got underway in 2018. It supported the cultivation and processing of natural dye plants such as indigo and examined the potential cultural and economic impacts of the work in Maryland. It is the work of a wide range of partners. Several state agencies including Maryland Department of Commerce, the Maryland State Arts Council, the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development (through the Baltimore Regional Neighborhood Initiative), and the state department of agriculture pooled $300,000 in funding to get the project started. During the two-year pilot phase of the initiative, the Parks & People Foundation hosted a dye farm at its headquarters in northwestern Baltimore. It employed two part-time urban farmers to develop local knowledge about the dye plants and their uses, created employment opportunities for neighborhood residents, and gave more than 500 Baltimore youth an opportunity to participate in farming and harvesting. MICA includes natural dyes in its fiber arts curriculum and draws on the knowledge of local natural dye practitioners and textile artists from the community. As part of the initiative, MICA also aimed to develop a community dye kitchen and learning space and foster local markets for natural dye and related artisan goods.
For MICA, the project has many layers beyond the commercial viability of indigo. MICA is located in a predominately African-American neighborhood in Baltimore and has a history of doing community engagement and working with local partners. MICA officials felt it was important for their approach to the project to include and value community members and acknowledge indigo’s history in the United States as a slave crop. MICA created a steering committee for the state agencies and nonprofits involved in the project. Recognizing their role as a bridge between the funding agencies and the local community, MICA developed a code of conduct about how it and the other agencies would work with the community. “They were at first bemused that we had set up these values and later they started to quote them,” Parks recalled, noting “this is about art and art allows conversations that are difficult in other ways.”
The relationships at the state level were important, but MICA’s local ties were equally critical. The local ties enabled MICA to plan and execute the initiative quickly when the state asked for help. Faculty members in the Fiber Department had existing relationships with urban farmers and natural dye practitioners. MICA was poised to partner with small black-owned businesses and other community members in a mutually beneficial arrangement. Partners like farmer and textile artist Kenya Miles of Blue Light Junction serve as MICA faculty and also have a chance to hone their own professional skills in MICA’s studios and labs. “For creative placemaking, the first thing you need to understand is that there are people out there working in the community who might not have letters after their name, but are every bit as good at creating and pursuing strategies,” said Griffin Moreno. “We have to rethink who we count as faculty and how we use our resources as a school.” Parks and Griffin Moreno believe that it’s an important role for MICA to transfer power and resources to others. As a large institution in the community, MICA can bring individuals and smaller groups to the table and help ensure they are appropriately compensated for their work. Parks and Griffin Moreno view this ability as both a privilege and an obligation.
Since receiving the initial grant for the Natural Dye Initiative pilot, MICA has been awarded another round of funding from the Maryland State Arts Council to continue the project through October 2022. Parks’ advice to others? “Maintain those relationships. Sometimes that means doing a little work for free. Help others with what they are working on. Often, I think people make the mistake of waiting for funding opportunities to come out and jumping from project to project instead of maintaining those relationships.” She recommended grant seekers take advantage of the opportunities foundations and agencies offer to learn about their interests and get to know the program officers, such as webinars, Q&As, and other contact points. “Granting funding is a statement of trust,” she said. “If you don’t know the people you’re applying to before you apply, you’re already behind. That’s why the relationships are so important.”