Monday, July 22, 2019

Has Artscape run its course?

In a time when the Baltimore Symphony is in peril, the Orioles suffer from anemic attendance and the icon of Baltimore's rebirth, HarborPlace, is ailing, any notion to do away with another iconic fixture  such as Artscape is sure to hit a raw nerve. A Facebook posting suggesting such a thing got a lot of reaction, both ways.
Octopus on Charles Street. "But that's not art",
artist Mina Cheon on Facebook
Dennis Visco Artscape is awesome! It's almost impossible to select one thing over another.Great free music on 3 separate stages! Andy BOP Friday night on the Hopkins Stage! Reggae Sunday afternoon on the stage near the Meyerhoff and the Vocalist Saturday afternoon on the Morgan State stage was mind blowing. Wonderful dance ensemble in the air conditioned Lyric theater on Saturday,and I enjoyed the animation films in the air conditioned PARKWAY theater which first opened it's doors in 1915. All this being totally FREE.I'm not even mentioning the man and woman walking around on stilts which was pure fun on a hot summer day.And all of this FREE and timed perfectly with celebration of Man's first walk on the moon. THANK YOU CHARM CITY.
Yet, few would dispute that Artscape  2017, 18 or 19, still billed as the largest arts festival in the country, couldn't quite muster the energy, participation and attendance of the years when nearly half a million people were reported to have roamed the streets and the round in front of the stage at Mount Royal station was so crowded that one couldn't find a spot to watch Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles and when every creative soul in Baltimore felt an obligation to present a sculpture or object somewhere at the festival.
Dan Howard Very disappointing this year.
Ferris Wheel in front of the shuttered Meyerhoff
A lot has changed since 1982 when Artscape was inaugurated as a successor of the once wildly successful City Fair. (1970-1991). On occasion of the 30th birthday in 2011 Baltimore Magazine wrote this:
It's too hot, too crowded, the parking is awful, but still we go every year. Because each time we're tempted to skip Artscape, we remember something special that happened at the last one, and we find ourselves heading down to Mount Royal Avenue once again.
Maybe it was that time we were standing in the middle of the street by the Fox Building, so transfixed by a young rock-and-roll band that we forgot all about leaving early to beat the traffic. Maybe we wandered into the Mount Royal Station Building just to get out of the heat and into the air conditioning, but we were so taken by the paintings that we started attending gallery openings in the fall. Maybe we were so tickled by the Art Car Parade that we went out and bought a glue gun and started attaching toys to that old car we were going to trade in for $100. Maybe we bumped into an old Baltimore friend in the crowd, someone we hadn't seen in years, and, after an exchange of phone numbers, a friendship was rekindled. (Baltimore Magazine)
Most still holds true in 2019, even if  the festival no longer extended north on Mount Royal beyond the light rail tracks, the "Art Cars" have been eliminated, the Meyerhoff is shuttered due to a lock-out and light rail didn't run due to a sinkhole on Howard Street at Pratt Street and typical MICA venues  usually open to the public during Artscape such as the Brown Center, Fox Building, Bunting Building, Main Building and the Fred Lazarus IV Center were closed, in part due to renovations. The "big acts" at the main stage have become deliberately less glamorous. The Baltimore Brew also cited a total loss of classical music, including the loss of the popular Lyric opera performances. (The contribution was allegedly rejected by organizers).
Hand to Hand performance exhibition (photo Dennis Visco)

As always, the weekend in July is one of the hottest  of the year (unless a cold front brings incessant rain as in 2018 when the festival closed early due to lack of attendance) and as always, diligent search would find interesting items, even actual art. But for the most part, food and generic booths that could line any festival hawking all kinds of services and institutions dominate and more and more people wonder, if Artscape is really still the authentic Baltimore even it promises to be, even though many regulars and those who put a lot of work into the festival will immediately jump to its defense.
Conrad Jay Bladey it needs to go entirely-a waste-they have mistreated artists for decades (Bladey used to participate in ArtcCars)
A lot has changed since Artscape was conceived. Baltimore has established four Arts and Entertainment districts, the latest this year, the Pennsylvania Avenue A&E district celebrating African American arts and culture. The Station North, the Highlandtown  and the more recent Bromo A&E districts have their own events and individual identity. Only Station North overlaps in part with the Artscape grounds. The events on the Y-Not-Lot across North Avenue ("Ratscape") are more like an alternative Artscape than an adjunct. The Station North district itself lost its executive director in January of this year and its most iconic venue, the Wind-Up Space closed, but re-opened under a new manager as "Rituals".  Baltimore's Office of Promotion & the Arts (BOPA) created Light City and this year, for the first time, merged it with the Book Festival.  (A full list of BOPA events can be found here). BOPA is under new leadership under Donna Drew Sawyer, who replaced Bill Gilmore as executive director.
Peter Franchot, Comptroller. #DidYouKnow that the nonprofit arts & culture industry generates $961.6 million in annual economic activity in Maryland? AND it leverages $450.2 million in event-related spending? Art (and Artscape!) is at the very heart of our economy.
Charles Street North Stage Saturday night folk music
With Baltimore's population still in decline, suburbanites scared to come to the City thanks to soaring crime rates and transportation and almost ongoing mess thanks to sinkholes, signal failures and a still ailing public transportation system with a upkeep deficit of over $2 billion, even the most ardent Baltimore supporter  should be allowed to ask if the City can sustain the full schedule of events and still do each one in optimal form. Such a question is not a sacrilege and by no means an attempt to discredit the importance of the arts in Baltimore. Quite the opposite. The questions is, as quirky as Baltimore is, don't the arts deserve better? Wouldn't an arts festival which rotates through the  the four arts districts to highlight each in its unique character be more appropriate? Wouldn't it makes sense to focus the creative energy on making Light City really so that it can not only compete but also be different from the light installations of similar light festivals around the globe?

Finally the weather. The reason why Artscape takes place during the hottest days of summer has to do with the availability of venues such as the Lyric or various MICA facilities, the heat is a real detractor which will only become worse with rising average temperatures, no matter how many cold drink stands, cooling tents and air conditioned venues along the route. In code red air quality incessantly idling diesel trucks blocking the access routes against terrorists and the traffic of those who run back and froth in those stinky golf carts don't help either, even when the now available electric scooters were wildly popular as a means to get to the event or (illegally) cruise around in it. Baltimore's summers were always hot and steamy, but fewer and fewer people are willing to head outdoors and brace near 100F temperatures or want to staff the booths and stands.
A new lens for Artscape? (Artscape 2017)
Jessica Damen Why can’t it be the weekend after Labor Day? I didn’t go this year because of the heat. 
Greg Stanley Switch to fall. Too hot for any human being
Maureen Anne Fitzpatrick A friend commented, “If this is the hottest weekend of the year, it must be Artscape!” How do the planners not yet know about climate change? How do the planners not yet know about climate change?
 No doubt, BOPA will once again declare Artscape a success, promotion  being part of its mission and DNA. But cooler heads should consider what needs to be done to stem the slow hemorraghing that seems to have befallen the event.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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