Artscape organizer sculpts festivity from chaos

July 22, 1995|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff Writer

By 5:15 on Friday morning, Clair Segal is already sweating the details. All that stands between her and the opening notes of a successful Artscape, Baltimore's festival of the arts, is about 13 hours, a rugged mountain range of last-minute, absolutely-positively-must-be-done details -- and Mother Nature.

From where she stands on the wide outdoor stage set up at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, she can see the grassy hill where, by the end of the weekend, hundreds of thousands of people will have sat and listened to rhythm and blues, salsa, jazz, alternative pop and reggae.

Ms. Segal seems calm. She watches the six-man zydeco band that's being filmed for an early morning television spot. She matter-of-factly glances backstage, where a slew of temporary dressing rooms still must be installed. She looks at the hundreds of empty booths that will soon be alive with artists and craftspeople. Then she gazes skyward. And shudders.

"I think it's going to thunder," she says in horror.

Bad weather is the one thing nobody on her staff can control, fix or even patch up.

"But we can hope," she says.

For eight years, Ms. Segal, director of the mayor's advisory committee on art and culture, has organized Artscape, a two-day, three-night bonanza of visual arts, dance, literature, poetry, music and crafts. (Some exhibits will stay up until mid-August.) It is a project that in many ways resembles throwing an enormous party with entertainment, dancing and food for 1.3 million unknown -- but warmly welcomed -- guests.

"Every year, about two weeks before Artscape starts, I wonder why we do this," says Jane Vallery-Davis, the event's development director, who says that nervous energy woke her at 2:45 a.m. "Then every year when it starts, I remember."

Now in its 14th year, Artscape will include 35 acts on two stages, six dance groups, 47 booths of crafts, 90 booths of fine art, about 40 poets or fiction writers and at least 60 artists.

"Our mission is to develop a high-quality art experience free of charge and to make it accessible to people," says Ms. Segal. "And to showcase local artists. We use the national artists to draw people in."

There will also, of course, be tons of food -- from fruit shakes and lemonade to kielbasa and won-tons -- which has, in the past, caused the event to be criticized. "We've been called 'Foodscape,' but Artscape is designed to be a celebration, and you always serve food at celebrations," says Ms. Vallery-Davis.

Planning for the festival began last August -- as soon as the staff recuperated from last year's Artscape. Fund-raising for the event, which costs about $550,000 to put together, started in September. But, because streets must be blocked off to provide space for the arts and crafts booths, nearly all the construction must be done, and much of the art installed, in a great flurry of activity just before opening night.

As the sun and the temperature rise, so does the level of activity and excitement. By 10 a.m., the Artscape site on Mount Royal Avenue resembles an anthill gone berserk: Stagehands, construction workers, electricians, sound production experts, public relations specialists, TV crews and caterers swarm to and fro. As they work, the whap-whap-whap of hammers and whine of electric drills can barely be heard over the "one, two, testing, testing" of seemingly incessant sound checks.

Five thousand feet of fencing outlines the area. Three generators pump electricity to the hundreds of artists through 20,000 feet of wiring, 150 temporary outlets and 200 light bulbs.

This year, for the first time, there are two recycling centers. Four temporary, asphalt handicapped-access ramps have been built to accommodate the crowds, and about a dozen new public phones have been installed. Fifty-five Spot-A-Pots are tucked between the booths.

And bottles upon bottles of chilled juice and mineral water await the performers.

Ms. Segal, sensibly dressed in running shoes, khakis and an Artscape T-shirt, canvasses the area, looking for potential problems.

Sometimes she doesn't have to look far. The Budweiser trucks aren't getting enough electrical power, and the beer could get warm, announces one staff member. A stagehand wants to know where the VIP seating is supposed be.

At noon, Ms. Segal is told that one of that night's performers, Peabo Bryson, needs two dozen, long-stemmed, de-thorned, red roses.

It seems that for the past 17 years, Mr. Bryson has concluded every one of his acts by handing out red roses.

Without roses, his show won't go on.

L "De-thorned?" asks Ms. Segal as she hastily dials a florist.

Mr. Bryson will get his roses.

"There's always something," Ms. Segal says and grins.

Every year -- without fail -- something unexpected happens, the Artscape staffers say.

For example, in 1991, a baby was born on the hill in front of the outdoor stage during a Jeffrey Osborne concert. "We figure it has got to be named Jeff or Osborne," says Ms. Segal.

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