Baltimore reaches cultural crossroads

Artscape: Merger of city arts agency, promotion office must bring new direction, more coordination.

January 26, 2002

Can more art and fresh creativity emerge from a bureaucratic reorganization? For Baltimore's sake, let's hope so.

After 28 years as an autonomous agency, the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture has been folded into the city Office of Promotion. This means that Artscape and an array of other cultural programs will now be under the same roof as Preakness festivities, the Baltimore Book Festival, the Farmers' Market and the Inner Harbor Ice Rink.

This combination is not as weird as it may sound. With 12 new staffers added - at least temporarily - to the 24-member promotion office, big events like Artscape should have better and wider publicity. But that must be only a beginning.

For some time now, it's been clear that city-sponsored cultural events need a dose of new energy and purposeful direction, and Artscape is a prime example.

Over the last 20 years, the three-day summer extravaganza has become a smash hit, drawing hundreds of thousands of people to its free concerts, exhibits and craft markets.

But as crowds have grown, the event has lost its focus.

This was shockingly evident last summer when two car manufacturers were allowed to set up tents there, introducing a troubling new level of corporate commercialism that had nothing to do with art or Baltimore.

With the exit of Clair Segal, who headed the art commission for 15 years, new thinking is not only possible but mandatory. (Her replacement is expected to be chosen by March).

Fresh ideas and approaches are particularly needed to encourage artistic and cultural endeavors in the neighborhoods. Such creative activities have great potential for stabilizing and revitalizing individual communities.

Since the revamped culture office has money available, it should now direct more in the form of grants to support promising neighborhood initiatives.

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