In what’s become an annual tradition, Baltimore DOT reached out to Juliet Ames (aka The Broken Plate, aka Salt Box Art Movement’s founder) about the pieces of art she and dozens of Baltimore artists have attached to the city’s iconic yellow saltboxes. DOT had collected saltboxes for routine maintenance and repair starting around April 15th, a date we’ve taken to call Saltbox Ascension Day (Saltbox Descension Day is November 15th). Among the boxes taken were art boxes. The DOT folks removed the art when possible and set it aside for Juliet and me to pick up.
This year was different. Last year in 2021, we visited a DOT facility tucked away on Holliday St. under I-83 near downtown and grabbed 28 pieces of art, which we took back to Juliet’s studio space in Mill Centre. We posted on Instagram and the rest of the socials about our haul, and Juliet graciously coordinated ways for artists to retrieve their work.
Why did the DOT have 28 pieces of saltbox art in the first place? The story is complex, but here’s the spine of it. When artists first started dropping art on saltboxes, and DOT head Steve Sharkey publicly blessed the activity, there was no plan or thought given to what happened to the art when Saltbox Ascension Day rolled around in April. The story of what we and the DOT hashed out is documented here.
These 28 pieces being removed were “mistakes.” Art boxes were to stay put, and artists were supposed to be caretakers of their boxes. Word of this policy change didn’t make it down to all of the folks in the trucks doing the work, so art boxes got scooped up. Stuff happens.
This year there were many more art pieces, over 70, all in a separate storage container at the DOT facility on Pulaski Highway. Juliet and I were absolutely giddy. Some of these pieces were from early 2021 and part of the original burst of saltbox art after Juliet Ames dropped her first box and kickstarted this whole thing. This cache of saltbox art provided the answers to one of the most frequently asked questions I get: what happened to my art? In many cases (not all, there are some documented cases of pure saltbox art banditry), this storage container had the answer.
Michael, the DOT employee helping us, had done most of the work to remove the art, which was a challenge, to say the least, and in some cases, impossible. Some artists worked directly on the boxes, so the box is the art, not a place to attach it. Michael also wrote street names and intersections from which the art was removed on the backs.
So why were so many art boxes taken up this year compared to last year? What happened to the agreement to leave the art boxes alone?
I believe the most simple answer is a combination of two things: the non-official status of the saltbox art project and DOT attrition. To be clear, the DOT didn’t ask for this: extra attention, discussions, and meetings around, of all things, the saltboxes – a sub-set of a sub-set of DOT’s remit – and the DIY art that the citizenry suddenly decided to attach to them. There’s no official policy here, just people who have a lot on their plates dealing with a saltbox art-shaped curveball the best they can. Also, the folks we talked to last year about handling the art boxes are no longer with DOT, so whatever causal agreements we had left with them.
I suspect Michael’s setting aside the saltbox art pieces had nothing to do with a defined policy (we foolishly didn’t ask him). Still, he and his co-workers recognized that this art with worth setting apart and saving because, as I’ve written about before, saltboxes are made cheap and not to last. Any art on the boxes will be damaged or destroyed through the process of transport and storage, but this was an attempt at preservation, as was the noting of locations. Again, it is not his job to do any of this.
So Juliet and I had 79 pieces of saltbox art in my car, which, as is now tradition, we photographed and posted on Instagram and socials, along with the process for picking them up. Given the increased prominence of the saltboxes (thank you, The New Yorker, among others) and seeing a collection of those in one place, many people had great questions, comments, and ideas about all of this that I wanted to address.
I put these into two categories:
- Saltbox Art process questions – I’m hoping these were answered above, but I’ve also added them to the DIY page of this site.
- Why isn’t this stuff in a gallery, art show? Can I buy some of this awesome art questions – I’m hoping to answer these below.
Doing a Saltbox Art Exhibit
First of all, heck yes. There’s been chatter about this floating around as soon as this all caught fire and turned into dozens and dozens of art boxes and saltbox artists. Having 79 pieces of saltbox art together in one place only drove the idea home. People want it. We need to figure this out. We have some ideas, but first, a little level-setting:
This is all DIY. Artists can do whatever they want out there. Given that this is a somewhat subversive activity – co-opting city property for the sake of art – I get a good share of messaging looking for permission or guidance on the rules. While Juliet did pull together some guidelines, it’s pretty much Don’t Be A Jerk.
The artists are the owners of the art. While I have dropped an art box or two in my time (RIP, Wordle Box), I just document what’s out there and share the art with my Instagram followers. Any public display of the art needs to done with the express permission and approval of each participating artist.
Saltbox art as a commodity. Some folks have expressed an interest in buying pieces of saltbox art, which I totally understand. Again, if you like a piece you see in the wild or online, contact the artist. I will say this: there was a spate of saltbox art thefts that were not the DOT pulling boxes. Selling the art makes it a commodity, and I wonder if that increases the chances of theft.
Exhibiting for fun or fun AND profit?
So we’d all like an art show or exhibit, but the art is sold or auctioned off for charity? All of my saltbox-related activities involving money are for charity (Moveable Feast of Maryland), so this appeals to me. I am also not a working artist, so it’s very easy for me to want to make this about charity when artists also deserve to be paid if they want to be.
A few of us have been discussing all of this (Juliet Ames and Liz Miller – prolific saltbox artist of the Black Zodiac series – among others) and looking at the end of the upcoming season, targeting Spring 2023 after they pull boxes in April. This will give us enough time to figure out an approach and a process and get the pieces in place.