City plans to fall for free arts events again

Council must still OK funds for program in October

May 10, 2007|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Reporter

For the second straight year, arts organizations in Baltimore plan to offer free performances, lectures, exhibitions, workshops and other creative experiences in the fall.

Free Fall Baltimore would return for one month, instead of the two it ran last year. The city's Board of Estimates agreed yesterday morning to a $500,000 allocation to fund the program. The money must still be approved by the City Council, which is expected to take up the matter before the end of June.

The funds would "provide additional resources so that we don't have to put the arts on the back burner," Mayor Sheila Dixon said yesterday at a news conference. "We sometimes take for granted some of the great institutions in the city."

The program, which ran in October and November last year, was trimmed to just October this year for several reasons, said Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts. Last year, a city surplus provided $750,000 for Free Fall's grant awards, which enable arts organizations to stage the events cost-free. This year, the money is coming out of the supplemental budget -- which includes add-ons to city expenditures -- and is therefore a lesser sum.

In addition, some organizations found it difficult to stretch themselves for two months, Gilmore said, despite the city's help.

"We felt that a more concentrated period of a month would be a stronger statement," Gilmore said. "Also, from a marketing standpoint, it makes a tighter package."

Last year, 342 free cultural activities drew about 180,000 people to theaters, museums, art centers, workshops and other attractions. City officials figured that by offering them for free, they would catch the attention of residents and visitors who might not have explored them otherwise.

One such attraction is the USS Constellation Museum at the Inner Harbor, aboard the last remaining all-sail warship built by the Navy, in 1854.

"We were totally wowed, totally blown away by the number of people who were able to visit the ship," Christopher S. Rowsom, the museum's executive director, said during a news conference at City Hall. He estimated that 16,000 people came aboard in October and November, a period he said normally is "a quiet time for us."

Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, said Free Fall Baltimore had been "wildly successful" in drawing visitors to the museum.

In October and November, the BMA had 44,700 visitors and the Walters Art Museum had 39,194 visitors -- among the highest attendance numbers recorded for those months in the past five years. (Last year, both museums did away with admission fees not only during Free Fall but thereafter, and reported significant increases in visitors.)

Thomas Noonan, president of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, said Free Fall had "helped to put Baltimore on the cultural map of the entire East Coast."

The Black Cherry Puppet Theater, which took part in Free Fall last year, used a quartet of string puppets based on 19th-century circus and vaudeville designs to orchestrate a dance at the news conference. Black Cherry's co-director, Bill Haas, said the group will participate in Free Fall again.

"It brought a lot of people to our theater," he said, "which was nice."

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