Artscape brings variety of arts to people in an urban setting


July 12, 1992|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

Weeks before Baltimore's annual festival of the arts, logistical maps of Artscape commandeer the offices of the Mayor's Committee on Arts and Culture, reminding frantic organizers of dozens of urgent details. Organizing Artscape '92 means attending to the needs of a vast cultural army -- and approximately one million civilians. The city's three-day campaign for the arts now takes a year's worth of planning.

When it began 10 years ago, Artscape was one of many outdoor festivals in Baltimore. Since the demise of the city fair, however, it stands among a handful of surviving urban celebrations. It's one of the few remaining reunions for communities that don't usually mix.

Artscape weds performing arts and visual arts and literary arts in a surprising and lively fashion. More than any other event, the festival has helped shed the "pinkies-up" image of art and culture in Baltimore.

And it's still free.

"Artscape blurs the line between high art and low art," says Lisa Corrin, assistant director of the Contemporary, an art museum which programs exhibitions in temporary spaces. "All too often, cultural production is seen as something for the initiated. Artscape gets rid of that artificial boundary and shows that all kinds of culture exist simultaneously. At Artscape, rap music exists next to experimental jazz."

"We highlight the arts community in a way that nothing else can," says Clair List, director of the Mayor's Committee on Arts and Culture, the agency that engineers the festival. "Artscape gives the cultural community a chance to meet up with current and future audiences and to break down a lot of barriers."

This year's festival features such nationally known performers as Gladys Knight, Stanley Jordan, Diane Schuur, Tammy Wynette and C. J. Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band. Local groups will perform classical, jazz, progressive, folk, world beat, zydeco, gospel and soul music.

Ten visual arts exhibitions -- ranging from a show of work of 18 of the area's leading artists to a whimsical history of alternative arts in the city -- will celebrate the festival's 10th anniversary. There will be crafts and a fine arts market as well as outdoor interactive sculpture exhibitions.

Storytellers, mimes, magicians, jugglers, puppeteers and a host of wandering street performers will entertain the crowds. Dance performances will focus upon the culture of other countries.

The literary arts programming, which has blossomed over the years to include literary awards as well as readings, will include appearances by novelist John Barth and poet Lucille Clifton.

"This is the only festival that gives this kind of commitment to the literary arts by selecting individual writers and giving them some recognition," says Joe Jaffa, publisher of Damascus Works, a local small press. "And it's the only place where you can see a comprehensive selection of what's being printed by local presses."

Artscape was created in 1982 to help develop the identity of the Mount Royal corridor as the city's cultural center -- the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall opened later that year -- as well as to celebrate the diversity of Baltimore's arts. Over the years, it has raised few criticisms.

An early objection to the festival was that it paid only out-of-town performers; now all Artscape performers are paid. More than three-fourths of this year's performers are from the Baltimore-Washington corridor and other parts of Maryland, according to Ms. List. However, the national headliner stage acts draw the biggest crowds, providing what one observer calls the festival's "connective tissue."

"We showcase our local performers in the context of these big headliners," says Jane Vallery-Davis, MACAC's director of development. "People may go to see Tammy Wynette and end up watching a dance performance they didn't plan on seeing."

Although some criticize the festival as being too commercial, others point out that Artscape continues the historical tradition of public festivals that combine entertainment and spectacle with art consumption.

Then there's the question of the heat: Artscape is held in the summer because the Maryland Institute -- the festival's main host -- does not hold as many classes and art exhibitions then. Festival officials also say July is a better bet than June for clear skies; the first Artscape, held in June, was marred by rain.

The festival has spawned only one persistent controversy: a battle over Artscape money. The first budget for Artscape was around $220,000; this year's budget is double that. Although the festival gets some support from the city and the state, organizers raise most of the money from private individuals, corporations and foundations -- no small task at a time of cutbacks in charitable giving.

Artscape officials anxiously await the final disposition of roughly $700,000 in festival monies raised by Jody Albright, the festival's founder and former director who now runs the governor's office on art and culture.

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