An urban masterpiece Not just an outdoor festival, Artscape is universally recognized as a peculiarly harmonious event with the power to draw Baltimoreans together.

July 17, 1998|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Beginning tonight, the mental and physical borders that separate black and white Baltimore will dissolve into a raucous three-day reprieve called Artscape, now in its 17th year. One festival regular calls it the summer version of a snow day, a designated time when the usual routines, stereotypes and fears just don't hold.

On what always seems to be the summer's steamiest weekend, Mount Royal Avenue becomes a cheek-by-jowl promenade. And the art, music, drama and food become a sideshow for the real spectacle: people of all colors, creeds and ages grooving together as one sweaty but harmonious organism.

For those who crave evidence to keep their faith in Baltimore, Artscape is sublime affirmation.

How does this festival achieve maximum diversity while the rest of the year Baltimore remains primarily a city segregated socially and culturally?

There are easy, obvious answers: Artscape is free and takes place in an open, centrally located space; the music; the beer.

But most important, Artscape offers something for everyone, from all that beer to Shakespeare, says Jane Vallery-Davis, who promoted Artscape for the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture for eight years and now serves as coordinator for the festival's literary arts programs.

"There is a real determined attempt to provide something for everyone, to go across the board of people, interests and tastes, and at the same time to give people something that they may not be familiar with," Vallery-Davis says.

At Artscape several years ago, she remembers overhearing a conversation between two young black men who were skeptical about a performer named Buckwheat Zydeco. To them, the first name recalled the stereotype black character from the movie serial "Our Gang." But once the man and his band got rocking, they said, "Hey, they're not bad!"

For Vallery-Davis, that moment demonstrated how Artscape encourages people to venture beyond their usual boundaries and try new experiences.

The groundwork for Artscape's success is laid during the year in low-profile programs that can have a profound impact, says Claudia Bismark, director of development for the committee on arts and culture. For example, the school-year workshop Bright StARTS, a visual arts program for city children, culminates in an Artscape exhibition, which draws the participants and their families. From there, the arts committee staff ensures that Bright StARTS visitors partake of all of the festival's riches. "Kids who have that introduction see this whole world open up," Bismark says.

Ann Margaret Russ, a potter and teacher whose work will be on display at the festival's Clayworks booth, says that Artscape succeeds because it presents art in an accessible, unjudgmental way. "Museums can be so sterile, so cold, so elite," Russ says. At Artscape, "There are different ways to experience art, and you don't feel stifled, trapped by the art, or judged if you walk in and out."

Maybe it's just fun

For Sally B. Gold, a Bolton Hill attorney who essentially lives at Artscape for its duration, the festival's synergy defies analysis. "We have noted that it is a crowd that is mixed in every way -- race, sex, age -- and that's a continuing theme, that it draws from all parts of the community. And when you try to analyze, 'Is it the food, the art?' you're kind of missing the point, that it's just fun and everybody thinks it's fun."

For Joanne McCorkle-Smith, a large part of Artscape's appeal is its unpredictability: "You might see a Caucasian with 1 million braids in her hair like a black person, or a black person with hair [that is perfectly] straight. You go looking for those things which you do not see every day," says the director of employee development and training for Maryland's Department of Budget and Management. "It is the strange and unusual [that] people are hungry to see. They come for a good time and leave their differences at home."

Artscape is also a striking reminder of how Baltimore has evolved from a city plagued over the years by legally sanctioned segregation, plus riots and abject racism, says McCorkle-Smith, a Mount Washington resident. "I think a lot of us, unless we are Baltimoreans and have been here down through the years and have seen the changes, don't realize what a monumental event this is for the city. Especially our younger kids who have lived through open-air fairs and the different ethnic fairs, this is nothing new for them. But for us who have been here since the 1950s and '40s, this is really an unusual thing."

At Artscape, old fears and inferiority complexes disappear, McCorkle-Smith says. There is "no sense of competitiveness. You don't have to prove how smart you are. The difference between this event and bringing races into a room to hammer out differences, where everybody is trying to impress everyone with how fluent they can speak is that communication is based on the arts," she says.

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