It's a celebration of Baltimore culture, of the season, of the arts. It's that ultimate summer escape in the city. It's Artscape.
For the 24th year, Artscape will fill the streets along the Mount Royal Avenue corridor with three days of live entertainment, visual arts, fashion, family fun and food. Admission is free.
Visitors to the numerous indoor and outdoor venues, stages and stands will browse arts and crafts from local artisans, watch films, street theater and live dance, catch continuous musical performances by local and national talent and much more.
Each year, thanks to the wealth of artistic, visual and vocal talent, Artscape draws quite a crowd. By some estimates, 500,000 people attended the three-day festival last year. A huge crowd is expected again this year.
And for many of those visitors, when they think Artscape, they think music - namely, four stages of music.
This year, headliners include Boyz II Men and Morris Day and the Time tomorrow, Vivian Green, Q-Tip and Maxi Priest on Saturday, and Jah Works and Shaggy on Sunday. Also, the Southern alternative-rock band Drive-By Truckers will take the stage Saturday.
But beyond the music, there's outdoor sculpture on display throughout the festival, juried art exhibitions, performances at Theatre Project and opera in the Brown Center at Maryland Institute College of Art.
"It's a chance for people to sample opera," says Tracy Baskerville, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. "If you don't have a chance to go to opera during the year, or if you're bringing your kids and you want to expose them to opera, here's a chance to do it for free and get them interested in it. And with theater, it's a chance to experience a variety of performances, as well."
The four stages of music are the University of Baltimore Stage, The Sun/LIVE Stage, the Festival Stage and the DJ Culture Stage.
"The DJ Culture Stage was a stage we added last year," Baskerville says. "And it was so popular that we're bringing it back. It became this great eclectic community with folks dancing and having breakdancing contests."
This year, visitors will hear local, national and international DJs, including Biz Markie on Sunday.
And what would a festival be without the food? American, Italian, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, Greek, Polish, Thai and Jamaican foods will be available at the Food Court, which opens earlier than usual.
"This year, we're opening at noon," Baskerville says. "We've noticed in the past that people would come earlier to get their spot on the hill. And people were walking around. So we said, `Let's open at noon for lunch.' Also, we're going to have all the vendors open at the Artists' Market."
There are some other changes this year. Artscape has added fashion to its itinerary.
"In the last couple of years, we've been approached by local people in the fashion community, and they wanted to be a part of Artscape," Baskerville says. "So [this year] we'll have about 25 booths with boutique owners and fashion designers selling their designs. It's all original art. And we've added fashion shows this year. We're building a runway, and there will be fashion shows all three days."
Another change is the addition of the Mayor's Billie Holiday Vocal Competition.
"In the past, it had been in April at Center Stage," Baskerville says. "The winner usually won a chance to perform at Artscape. And we'd been looking for a bigger venue. So we're now doing it at the Meyerhoff. It's still free and open. And everyone can come in and listen to the semifinalists perform. And we've added a new category of People's Choice. So we have the people voting, as well as the judges. And then the next day at noon, the winners take the stage."
Also new this year is an expanded children's area. Baskerville says that after conducting surveys last year and discovering that visitors had trouble finding the children's area or did not realize that there were many children's activities, they decided to make the kids' area grander and better.
"We've really made an effort this year to make the children's area bigger," she says. "We're using that entire area in front of the Meyerhoff called Pearlstone Park. We're adding more hands-on activities for the kids. And we'll have the kids' area opening on Friday. In the past, it was only open on Saturday and Sunday."
So no doubt - kids, music fans, art lovers, theater-goers, dance fans and opera buffs will have plenty to do, see and learn over the next three days.
"[We] really want people to walk away with an appreciation of the arts. Not just one aspect of it. Not just the music. Not just theater. But arts as a whole. To really understand how much impact the arts have on your life," Baskerville says.
Given the heat and humidity predictions for Artscape weekend, organizers have taken some precautions to keep visitors comfortable.
Misting tents will be at the Main Stage and the Festival Stage.