Artscape's fun feels just a bit too familiar

Essay: It's comfortingly predictable, in many ways the same from year to year. But is that what an arts festival should be?

July 12, 1999|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

To be part of the enormous crowd singing along with the Temptations at Artscape Friday night was to praise the familiar and the communal, to not ask anything new of the world, but to bask in its predictable pleasures for one simmering summer evening. It's fun to know so many people, so many strangers, can all chime in on the chorus of "My Girl."

It is easy to approach the entire festival the same way: To return every year, knowing just where the stages are, where to get the best kebabs, where to ogle the same (more or less) art cars. Part of the Artscape experience is, in fact, the expectation of certain verities: the crush of flesh along Mt. Royal Avenue, the heat, the ominous skies, the impromptu dancing in the street.

But after years of attending Artscape, something occurs to me: As wonderful as it is, this three-day celebration offers few surprises to veterans.

Every year, while some particulars change, the general experience is the same.

And while that sense of sameness is OK for the State Fair (where the midway, Ferris wheel and freaky gourds are always where you left them last year), or an ESPN Zone spree, it's not entirely OK for what is billed as an arts festival.

Familiarity isn't in and of itself a bad thing, a friendly devil's advocate involved with Artscape admonished me Friday night. "I like the Sunday paper, too, and it's always the same," he said.

Touche! And point well taken.

It's understandable why Artscape adheres to an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" philosophy. It's hard enough as it is on a limited budget to pull off this carefully crafted formula of art, entertainment and events designed to appeal across generational, racial and ethnic lines. When a free festival's mission is to offer something for everyone, it's risky to go out on a creative limb in any one direction or genre. Durability often precludes unfettered originality. And as one fan, who had staked her spot in front of the Decker stage by 10 a.m. Saturday said, "It works for me."

Still, I wonder how Artscape could be reconfigured to make it a little more distinctive, and less like an annual rerun of a favorite movie or show. When I look back on previous Artscapes, they blur together into a sweaty stew of art, music, food and face painting. Here and there are bright spots of brilliant blues, jazz or Cajun, or an amusing art installation. This year, David Page's ingenious "Man in a Bottle" house, in which he installs himself in a home-made straight jacket for an hour at a time, intrigued my boys and me. It also made us giggle. "Hey, old man," two young wise guys kept harassing him during his confinement Friday. "Do you have to pee?" That, Page admitted good-naturedly, was what he had set himself up for.

I loved Diane Sipple's paintings of her swimming children rendered from underwater and Carl Clark's beautiful photographs of homely subjects.

But for the most part, although the art offerings may change from year to year, the level of edginess and challenge rarely varies. And I'm always perplexed by it: Is it too obvious or too oblique -- or am I just not getting it?

And then there's the crowd. The dizzyingly close quarters shared by artists, musicians and vendors cancels out their individual impact, and their unique contributions to the festival merge into bewildering mental white noise.

As it is envisioned, Artscape, I realize, probably wouldn't work in a different locale. Its central place in the heart of Baltimore's cultural arts district is critical, and it's impossible to think of another location enhanced by ample gallery space and light rail transportation. Still, it would be nice to enjoy an Artscape where being funneled into the skinny lanes on Mt. Royal and constantly bumping into those standing in long lines for food were not a required part of the experience.

If you try, you will find important changes, if not surprises, from year to year, says Claudia Bismark, director of development for the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture, which produces Artscape.

This year, for instance, the juried art shows weren't themed, allowing for a more fluid exhibition of work throughout gallery spaces, Bismark pointed out. The crafts and fine art offerings were grouped together this year for the first time, she says. And Bismark, who worked at the Walters Art Gallery for 10 years, recently introduced Asian art into the Artscape mix, drawing a greater Asian audience to the festival, she said.

There's a another major change, Bismark says. Three years ago, Artscape would not have registered as a lucrative inroad with potential sponsors. Now companies, including those that produce A-1 Steak Sauce, Claritin antihistamines and Hallmark cards, gladly pay up to $10,000 for a display booth, and $2,500 more per day for the right to distribute product samples among the crowd.

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