A bigger canvas

Artscape pushes a different kind of urban sprawl, as its action spreads to the Station North Arts and Entertainment District

July 13, 2008|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Reporter

Judging urbanscapes by their appearances can be as misguided as judging books by their covers. Consider the slice of North Avenue between Charles and Howard streets.

A cursory glance reveals several buildings that could use a few essentials, like, say, windows. Or tenants. Fast-food businesses in need of a little sprucing. An iffy motel. That sort of thing.

But a second glance makes this stretch of Baltimore look not just less gritty, but actually blossoming. Take in a wider view that covers some of the surrounding blocks, especially along Charles, and the signs of fresh life jump out - cafes and restaurants with a dynamic vibe, galleries with a flair for the edgy, intimate theaters. Welcome to the Station North Arts and Entertainment District.

This continually developing area of about 100 acres north of Penn Station, designated an arts district by the city in 2002, is about to get what could be its most important close-up, thanks to Artscape.

For the first time, the free arts festival - said to be the largest in the country - will extend beyond its traditional Mount Royal Avenue corridor and spread up Charles Street from the 1400 block, past the train station and as far as Lafayette Avenue, not much more than a stone's throw from North Avenue.

Station North is an official partner of the festival, and the whole area will effectively be drawn into the Artscape scene.

"This is something we've been wanting for a while and really worked for," says Sarah Williams, owner of the Metro Gallery across from the Charles Theatre. "There is so much going on with development in Station North now that it's natural for Artscape to be in the actual arts district."

Natural, but tricky.

"It wasn't an easy decision," says Bill Gilmore, executive director of Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. "We've looked at this for a couple years. Last fall, we brought in city agencies to discuss it. It's a bold move. You just don't plop down something like Artscape lightly."

Especially when the festival already has a familiar, well-defined and extensive perimeter that follows Mount Royal past the Maryland Institute College of Art in Bolton Hill and fans out at the Cathedral Street split by the Lyric Opera House. But Artscape has adapted and modified itself before.

Gilmore recalls a common complaint when his office assumed direction of Artscape about five years ago. "You heard people saying, 'I don't go anymore - it's too hot, and it's too crowded.' So we put the food court off to the side and put art front and center. This made the site a lot more manageable and gave people more breathing room." (The heat issue isn't so easily modified.)

This year, that elbow space increases considerably with the move into Station North. The additional blocks will be filled with such things as street theater; a photo booth that will capture digital images of hundreds of Artscapers for an exhibition on Penn Station walls; and a car park turned by 11 artists into "Station North Works: A Full Service Garage," where festival-goers can get advice and assistance in various ways.

"I think the extra things this year will encourage people to come to Artscape more than once," Gilmore says. "It's like Disney World - you can't see it all in one day."

Artscape, which has a budget this year of about $1.1 million, doesn't provide attendance figures. "It's hard to do that without turnstiles or ticket sales, but there are tens of thousands of people," Gilmore says. "It's huge." That those mobs are expected to flow into Station North for the first time "will have a profound impact on the district," he adds.

That's what Station North's movers and shaker are counting on.

"One reason we're so excited about the expansion is that Artscape is one of the few times that some people ever come into Baltimore City," says David Bielenberg, executive director of Station North Arts and Entertainment Inc., the nonprofit organization that manages the district.

Many of those infrequent visitors will get what is likely to be their first taste of the burgeoning Station North. "I don't expect them to come back every week," Bielenberg says, "but, in the future, when they're thinking about things to do, they might consider it."

Although several businesses along the 1700 block of Charles Street, the upper boundary of this year's Artscape, have thrived for some tme now, anything even one short block north of that vibrant spot was considered something of a no man's land. The Station North pioneers have been chipping away at that perception.

"Already the 1800 block has the new Strand Theater and the Station North Arts Cafe Gallery," Bielenberg says. "Two years ago, no one would have imagined businesses opening in that block."

Gilmore calls Lafayette Avenue and the 1700 block of Charles "the best ending point for Artscape from a logistical standpoint. We didn't want to block off access to Falls Road. And we didn't want to bite off more than we could manage," he says.

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