He studied chemical engineering at Johns Hopkins, and from there his life took different turns. Burkholder took a job doing basic science research at his alma mater right after graduation, but painted the interiors of people’s houses on the side, something he eventually took up full-time. By 2008 he was applying to MBA programs, thinking he would take that graduate degree to a job on Wall Street or in some management consulting firm.
In the course of his work as a painter, Burkholder met Michael Owen, a Maryland Institute College of Art graduate and the creator of the Baltimore LOVE Project. Owen needed someone to help him secure rights of entry in order to paint his signature silhouettes of four hands spelling out the word “love,” not to mention a person who could find the money to pay for supplies. Burkholder took the job and didn’t look back.
“Culture and art need to lead society,” Burkholder says. “That’s where you can explore new ideas.”
Technically Baltimore spoke with Burkholder about moving from Minnesota, LOVE and why people need to think Baltimore is a world-class city.
TB: Why does a guy from Minnesota stay in Baltimore for 14 years?
SB: In the course of that time working on the LOVE Project, I absolutely fell in love with the city. … I happen to be part of the movement that’s latching on to the future and saying we have this amazing future. That’s what’s kept me. Those relationships with people, the amazing potential. I like to tell people, we have all the assets to be a world-class city. All the makings are here, but we need to put it together.
TB: Well, what’s stopping us?
SB: I think right now reservation, apprehension. A fear. And a lack of risk-taking. I think sometimes our leadership is very content. They won’t tell you what they want. They won’t provide you a vision. And it is a good place to be second to something, because you know someone else has done it and succeeded at it, but that’s not leadership.
TB: Tell me about the moment you knew you no longer wanted to be an engineer.
SB: I’m still an engineer. I still solve problems. I still create systems. I still devise mechanisms of increasing efficiency. Which really is what engineering is at its core. I don’t solve differential equations to do it though. … [I was] just wanting to go out on my own and do my own thing. …
Probably the real, final tipping point was when I got married my wife, Jennifer—she knew that I was an entrepreneur. … And so, that took me to a place where I needed to say what is it that I really want to do. That notion of art, engineering, entrepreneurship all came together in the concept of promoting art, and that was scary, because that took us to a less stable place [financially].
TB: So what makes the LOVE Project so compelling? Why give up financial security in 2008, right when a recession is kicking off?
SB: I promote art because art is a place where we can explore philosophy. It’s a place where you can look at the world and show the world as it currently is. Both all of its beauty and all of its ugliness. And, frankly, the despicable, terrible parts. Art is a place you can talk about that in a safe way sometimes. But more importantly, art is this place where you can explore hope, you can explore the future, and you can imagine what the world would be like if we lived differently, if we had a different philosophy, and a different culture. That’s captured my imagination.
TB: What exactly do you do, since Michael’s the one painting the murals?
SB: We would seek out rights of entry. … We knew that we needed money to get paid. … We started devising the strategy of the whole project and looking at what was it we were actually doing and how do we talk about it, and how do we talk about it in such a way that we create the value propositions that the business community is going to be interested in.
It’s grown into creating a movement and marketing and branding so you can get the rights of entry and get the funding to make it happen.
TB: And that funding comes from … ?
SB: The revenue consideration was always part of the philosophy of the project. It was really important to Michael that … the philosophy remains that this is a project for everyone. This is a project that doesn’t belong to anyone specifically. And the way you manifest that, you look for funding sources from everyone, meaning we weren’t going to go after a large grant to pay for the whole thing, [and] we weren’t going to go after a significant corporate sponsorship to pay for the whole thing. …
We had to create a program that encapsulated some of the outcomes that foundations were interested in. We created things that would attract individuals to provide contributions. And then we created merchandise. And the great thing is today we have over 160 people and entities that have contributed to the project, ranging from a $2 contribution on a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to a $15,000 grant from a foundation.
TB: You mentioned that you think Baltimore is a world-class city, but also that the leadership isn’t there. Should city council members, the mayor be professing that we’re a world-class city?
SB: There’s a sense that our leadership should say that. There’s a sense that our people should say that. … If the creative class of Baltimore started professing that Baltimore is a world-class city and a great city, that means something. If we can own that and say that and maybe not see it as in, see it right now, but see it in the future, that would be powerful. That would probably be more powerful than just the mayor saying that. I think we all need to say it.
TB: But world-class also means the world over. Yet Baltimore, even just inside the city itself, can feel walled off.
SB: We’re siloed. We use that terminology all the time, and even in the innovation crowd we’re siloed. I work hard to say let’s get the artists and the technologists and the entrepreneurs and the social change makers out of their bubbles and bring them all together. And we need to do that, but we also need to break the chasm between that innovation community and a lot of the resources in the city. … We’re in a place where we have unbounded energy right now, we just don’t have the resources. What would happen if we came together and started working on this Baltimore?