Monday, September 25, 2023

Exhilarating Artscape

 After a decade or so in which cities rode high on a wave of urbanism as desired lifestyle Covid brought an abrupt end to celebrating crowds, density, and mingling. Instead, people hunkered down in isolation and were told  to keep their distance everywhere.

Sondheim Prize Semi finalist display" Virtual Realty"

Even though Covid has receded from the minds of most people by now, reverberations of the pandemic remain. The impacts are especially noticeable in cities that often are only a shadow of their former self with empty sidewalks, boarded shops, shuttered restaurants and half empty subway and light rail trains. On top of that the inexplicable scarcity of labor that apparently leaves every transit agency, every school district and every restaurant ripping their hair out in search of qualified staff. 

Baltimore's Department of Promotion and Arts (BOPA) was so deflated from almost 3 years of  cancelling events that they didn't even feel ready to pull Artscape off in 2023, three years after the cities largest public event had happened in 2019. Luckily, the Mayor wouldn't have it that way.  Somewhat incongruously, he fired the BOPA Director and announced at the same that Artscape would be had this year, no matter what. A litany of complaints about moving the festival from July to September, about the shifted spaces, and conflicts with the resident art and culture institutions, as well as competing other events and festivals such as Hampdenfest ensued in a steady stream. Even three weeks before Artscape was supposed to open,  key headliner Kelly Rowland cancelled unexpectedly. Finally, in the last few days before the long awaited kick-off, it became clear that  tropical storm Ophelia was barreling towards Baltimore for the anticipated Artscape weekend with high winds and extensive rain in the forecast. The storm succeeded to knock Saturday out entirely and made the festival limp on Sunday. But the Friday opening was an unmitigated success!

Setting up at the Mt Royal stage right after 5pm

Baltimore, I am putting you on notice. Artscape is BACK and it will be bigger and BETTER than before (Mayor Scott on Twitter on August 7)

When Friday evening came, the sky was grey and laden. Wind-gusts felt as if rain was imminent. But then the miracle happened. Artscape unfolded on all the event stages, the streets were lined with art stalls and vendors, MTA shuttled visitors to the event for free, and soon after five the streets filled up with people. MICA served snacks for an exhibit at their Meyerhoff gallery that showed Sondheim Prize semi-finalists. MICA students with art booths safely tucked into the Brown Center lobby tried to sell some of their own products. Artscape, indeed, was better than before. the Mayor was right.

Today, many cities are confronting the prospect of an urban doom loop, with a massive oversupply of office and retail space, fewer commuters and a looming urban fiscal crisis. Washington, D.C., is an illustration.

In December 2022, the city had approximately 27,000 fewer jobs than in February 2020, and it faced a growing financial shortfall from declining property taxes due to downtown business closures and fewer property purchases. The District of Columbia government projects that city revenues will decline by US$81 million in fiscal year 2024, $183 million in 2025 and $200 million in 2026. Washington’s Metropolitan Transit Authority faces a $750 million shortfall because of a sharp decline in ridership. (Downtown

Art Market in the MICA Brown Center

People came out, whether being curious to see if Artscape was for real, or tired of being isolated, drawn by headliners (DJ Pee Wee instead of Kelly Rowland), or by the art on display in many places. When the sky darkened and the lights shone brightly, Artscape showed itself from its best side and transformed the Cultural District and parts of Station North into a place of joy and celebration. The rain held off and Baltimore showed  how much fun the city can be, how much fun there is in seeing and being seen. People of all ages and backgrounds showed off in all kinds of outfits, there was even someone pushing their cat in a stroller. The lack of sweltering heat was an advantage and so was the fact that for once food stalls did not seem to dominate art stalls.

Particularly impressive was the transformation of North Avenue on the block between Maryland and Charles Streets where, in spite of all efforts to have Station North take off as a successful art and entertainment district, many of the pioneering venues had been shuttered, even before Covid. On Friday evening the former bookstore Red Emma's, the former bar Liam Flynn, the former Dcenter gallery in the former Avenue Market, the former WindUp Space, the beautifully restored Parkway Theatre and the scrappy Y-Not lot were not only open, but the their pop-up installations bringing them back to life felt like it didn't take much than rolling the shutters up, turning on the lights and letting the people come through. It was truly magical. For once bureaucratic regulations about use and occupancy, licenses and whatever else makes such things usually rddled with hurdles and had been forcefully overcome.

Y-Not lot: Hot dogs, family and beer

Children played on the freshly placed wood chips under colorful sails and festive string lights while their parents sipped a brewski or shared hot dogs on the Y-Not lot. "North on North" is a new addition to Artscape. An abandoned gas station at Charles and 20th Street turned into a colorfully decorated outdoor bar. Across the street a brandnew mini-park. An appreciative audience with fresh popcorn on their laps watched shorts in the Parkway, just as it was intended to be. 

The most magical, because unexpected moment, came when turning from Charles Street on to Mount Royal after dark, where the spectacle of a UMMS sponsored drone show unfolded in the sky, tribute to UM's 200th birthday. Each of over two-hundred or so drones carrying a color changing light, silently floated into various positions depicting hearts, figures and letters per the command of a computer program. This was an Artscape first and maybe even a Baltimore first f this new technology, due to high cost so far mostly known from big events like the Olympics.

MMS Drone show at Artscape

After the drone show the area around the main stage filled up no problem and the DJ engaged with the excited crowd. No sign of trouble anywhere.

 Taking the free train back downtown, I concluded that there was no better way to close the week out than this visit at Artscape. Remote shopping, "cyberwork" and Netflix streaming movies have decimated many cities. Downtown needs to be redefined. But Artscape proved that nothing can replace the real life of actual people coming together to enjoy life. And that is what “city” is.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

all photos copyright Philipsen.

"A point of no return" painting, North Ave Market gallery

Shortfiilms in the Parkway

A gas station becomes a bar

Bar and gallery in what used to be the Windup Space

The former Red Emma's becomes a square dance place

Browsing for art on Charles Street

John Waters and Pink Flamingo, a MIC's art student intepretation

DJ on the Main Stage

Finally: People in the Street (Charles Street)

North of North: Artscape's expanded footprint

Seeing and being seen

From of to Artscape via free transit (Weekend event)

Theme installation of orange frames at intersections

Drone show over Mount Royal Station