An uneasy blend of art, commerce

Debate: Some ask whether the ubiquitous corporate sponsorship of Artscape is appropriate at an event that is primarily an art exhibition.

July 26, 2002|By Jay Parsons | Jay Parsons,SUN STAFF

As a kid growing up in Washington, Richard Colman liked to break things. Especially glass. This weekend, his Artscape display fuses that childhood love with his grown-up politics.

Colman designed a sandbox full of broken glass, enclosed by a fence. In the middle of the sandbox is a rocking horse.

"I always liked to play the innocence of childhood off of violence," Colman said. "It's funny to think if a kid leaves his house, he has to wear knee pads and a helmet. Plus, it's really fun to break bottles for a few days."

But Colman said the final product isn't the art he envisioned: "It's too big, and there's not enough glass."

The Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts is learning a similar lesson in its first year running the festival that is expected to attract more than 1 million people to Mount Royal Avenue tonight through Sunday.

"You look at this stuff on paper, walk it out and measure it," said promotion and arts executive director Bill Gilmore. "But when you put it all together, it's not always what you thought it would be."

Although the statement could apply to any piece of art, Gilmore was referring to the art of putting together the festival. His latest problem is where to place an oversized Gillette promotional tent; it doesn't fit in the food-court area for which it was slated.

And that leads to another Artscape issue debated in the months leading up to the festival's opening at 6 p.m. today: Does commercialization have any place in an art show?

Much of the artwork, including a billboard at Mount Royal Avenue and West Lanvale Street depicting Jesus holding a Budweiser, is anti-commercialization. "The King of the Jews for the King of Beers," it reads, providing an odd contrast to the strategically positioned tractor-trailers carrying commercial advertising for which companies paid Artscape $25,000 apiece.

"On an individual artist level, it is a big contrast," Gilmore said. "But we also have national recording stars who are heavily associated with advertising and commercialization.

"The bigger you get, it does become commercial. I admit that," Gilmore said. "But you can't have a $600,000 budget for a million people without becoming commercial."

To the artists, cohabitation with commercialization is the bittersweet reality of publicly presenting their art. One change from previous Artscapes is a consolidated food court away from the art exhibits, pleasing artists who complained about mingling the two.

Of Artscape's commercial aspects, "Personally, I can't stand it," said Logan Hicks, curator of the exhibition featuring the glass sandbox and Jesus with a beer billboard. "The same way people look at graffiti scrawled on walls is how I see corporate advertising.

"But I have no control over that," Hicks said. "We do what we can to get the word out ... that it's corporate graffiti."

The Jesus billboard is likely the most controversial piece in an anti-commercialization exhibition. The artist, New Jersey-based Ron English, built his reputation for painting over roadside billboards late at night, and his art takes aim at a trinity of targets: alcohol, tobacco and religion, Hicks said.

"What higher authority than Jesus Christ to endorse a product?" Artscape visual coordinator Gary Kachadourian said. "It's fighting against advertising and changing the meaning of it."

But criticism is expected, Kachadourian said, noting the sometimes negative responses to a painting, exhibited in a New York museum, depicting Jesus covered with feces.

"It's not the goal to offend a specific person or group, but to make a point, sometimes you offend people," said Kachadourian, in his 15th year as an Artscape organizer. "If it's oriented toward offending anyone, it's the corporate world."

Among those to perform tonight is Mayor Martin O'Malley's Irish rock band, O'Malley's March, at 6:30. Kool & The Gang, best known for "Celebration," is the last scheduled music act, at 8:45 p.m.

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