It was past midnight a few days before Artscape, the city's annual outdoor festival of the arts, and a crew of installers was having trouble making one of the outdoor sculptures on the Mount Royal Avenue median stand up straight. Someone summoned Gary Kachadourian, the event's longtime visual arts coordinator, for help.
"We went out and dug holes, set posts in the holes and figured out how to frame them out on the sloped hill," Kachadourian recalled. After a couple of frantic hours, working in the dark with only shovels and a carpenter's level, Kachadourian and crew finally mastered the mathematics of the site's steeply graded surface and managed to get the sculpture up on a level footing.
"One thing I've found out about this job," says Kachadourian, who has been managing the visual arts exhibits at Artscape for the last 17 years, "is that you can learn a lot standing on the median strip of Mount Royal Avenue at 2 o'clock in the morning."
The learning curve has been steep for Artscape's organizers in the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, who for the past 12 months have been working to make this year's event bigger and better.
That's bigger as in more programming; better as in higher quality and greater variety in the number and kinds of performers, exhibitions and the opportunities for audience participation that will be offered by the three-day, $800,000 festival, which begins tonight.
The office of promotion realized last year that the festival's huge crowds - as high as 1.5 million by some estimates - had already reached near capacity size. Nonetheless, BOPA director Bill Gilmore last year set a goal of expanding the event from one that draws a mostly metropolitan audience to one that attracts visitors from as far south as North Carolina and as far north as Philadelphia.
"This year we've really raised the bar for our programming," says Gilmore, whose office took over responsibility for Artscape three years ago from the old Mayor's Advisory Commission on Arts and Culture.
As part of that effort, Gilmore invited nationally acclaimed artist and MacArthur "genius" grant recipient Kerry James Marshall to curate one of the festival's art shows, in conjunction with a major show of Marshall's own art now on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
He also aimed to improve the quality of the festival's performing arts by expanding partnerships with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Opera Company, Center Stage and the Lyric Opera House.
The pop music component will pay more attention to disc jockey culture, with nationally known spinners DJ Feelgood and Ultra Nate performing. And new, hands-on workshops will offer visitors a chance to try out their own creative wings in everything from ballet to belly dancing, from folk guitar to carved duck decoys.
The festival, along the Mount Royal Avenue cultural corridor, has even extended its physical footprint by an additional block this year and will run from North Avenue to Charles Street, allowing organizers to relocate the artists' market more centrally and add a fourth stage for local bands, Gilmore said.
Still, not everything on Gilmore's wish list got done. The promotion office basically had the same amount of money this year as last (though a larger proportion of it was available for programming rather than capital improvements). And a proposal to market Artscape airfare and hotel packages had to be scrapped because the city's hotel industry was already booked full -there's a firefighters' convention here this weekend.
Yet even Artscape's critics concede that the festival has improved in recent years.
"It's about art now, and that's a wonderful thing," said artist J. Kelly Lane, a contributor to the annual Foodscape exhibit at the Mount Royal Tavern in Bolton Hill that was created 20 years ago as a spoof on Artscape's perceived obsession with food and music. "They've started to recognize that they've got some pretty good talent in their own back yard."
Adds fellow Foodscape artist Christopher Hartlove: "Somewhere, someone is finally putting more emphasis on the art than on the food."
The expanded festival includes new off-site exhibition spaces at Coppin State College, the Theatre Project and Area 405 Gallery, among others, as well as a dedicated concert stage for DJ culture. The free arts and crafts workshops are aimed at allowing the public to participate directly in the creative process, something that it is hoped will encourage people to become more involved in the festival's other exhibits.
"It will be a different way to view art, as an art-maker rather than as an audience member," says Randi Vega, director of cultural affairs in the office of promotion, adding that several hundred thousand people are expected to attend each day of this year's event.