`Maps' charted happy course for Walters and the city

June 15, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun architecture critic

Jamie Veracka worked as a cartographer before she became an art teacher in Anne Arundel County. So when she heard about an exhibit of maps at Baltimore's Walters Art Museum, she had to see it.

"My family already came here, and my sister raved about it," Veracka said as she stood in a wave of people who crowded in to see the show a few days before it closed last weekend. "I knew I had to be here. I wasn't going to let this go by."

Veracka was one of thousands who visited the Festival of Maps, a nearly three-month-long event during which more than 30 local arts organizations mounted map-related programs and activities to draw attention to Baltimore and its cultural offerings.

The Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance organized the festival to coincide with Maps: Finding Our Place in the World, the Walters exhibit that featured more than 100 of the world's cartographic treasures, including works by Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin and Charles Lindbergh.

Organized by the Field Museum and the Newberry Library in Chicago, the Walters' Maps exhibit drew 35,038 paid visitors from March 16 to June 8, making it the third best-attended show at the museum this decade.

Visitors came from 27 states and 20 foreign countries. The only exhibits that drew larger crowds to the Walters since 2000 were shows on Egypt (80,355 in 2003-2004) and Impressionism (59,355 in 2002.)

"That's stiff competition," museum director Gary Vikan said. "It was a great success."

Organizers say the larger Festival of Maps was also an unqualified success in showcasing Baltimore and its arts and cultural community.

"It was a very, very positive experience," said Nancy Haragan, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance. "It was a great way for people to become involved."

The Festival of Maps was the latest of several occasions in which local arts organizations organized around a common theme to promote cultural tourism. Others were a "Vivat! St. Petersburg" event in 2003, intended to honor the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's former music director, Yuri Temirkanov; the Tour de Clay in 2005, pegged to a crafts show and ceramic arts convention in Baltimore, and two Free Fall Baltimore events in 2006 and 2007, tied to a waiver of admission prices at participating institutions.

The idea behind the Maps festival, Haragan said, was to use the Walters' show as the impetus to mount exhibits, performances and other events with map themes during the same time period. Arts organizations in Chicago had also mounted a Festival of Maps there that was linked to the Field Museum show.

Activities ranged from daylong workshops to performances to viewings of historic documents. The Star-Spangled Banner Flag House Museum held walking tours. Maryland Institute College of Art students installed art works in parks around the museum, including a fence that blocked access to the parks for several weeks and stirred public complaint.

Collective marketing allowed participants to tie into the lead exhibit in a variety of ways, creating "a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts," Haragan said.

Baltimore received publicity on travel Web sites, in blog columns and newspaper and magazine articles. Publications that mentioned the maps festival included Forbes, Amtrak's Arrive magazine, AirTran's inflight magazine and newspapers from as far away as Laredo, Texas, and San Jose, Calif.

One participant that benefited was Art on Purpose, a three-year-old organization that employs art to bring people together around issues and ideas. It launched a program called Maps on Purpose that encouraged residents of 23 communities to create maps of their own neighborhoods and then display them at the Walters.

More than 1,500 people came to the Walters to see their community-made maps and tour the main exhibit.

"It brought people to the Walters who have never been to the Walters before," said Emily Slaughter, community outreach coordinator for Art on Purpose. For them, "to have art up in the Walters was a really big deal. The residents were really excited about that."

More than 100 people came to a symposium on Italian architect Andrea Palladio that was held at the Walters as part of the festival, said Pamela Higgins, special assistant for external relations at the Sheridan Libraries of the Johns Hopkins University.

"We were very pleased," she said. "We really believe the excitement about the Festival of Maps and the joint marketing we did was a factor in that."

Several hundred people came to the Top of the World Observation Level on Pratt Street for the opening of an art exhibit there that was part of the festival, said Bill Gilmore, executive director of Baltimore's Office of Promotion and the Arts.

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