Artscape beat expectations, city officials boast

July 22, 2008|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun Reporter

Surveying the throngs of people who swarmed Charles Street last weekend for Artscape - the first time the festival expanded onto Baltimore's premier street and into the Station North Arts and Entertainment District - the city's promotions director said, "We've probably brought five years' worth of new people to the district in one weekend."

Bill Gilmore could afford to boast. Artscape expertly built on its base in Bolton Hill to spread north and east onto Charles Street, drawing thousands of people to the galleries, restaurants and shops that make up the city's designated arts district in Midtown Baltimore.

Load of Fun Studios reported that more than 800 people passed through its doors - its biggest weekend in its 2 1/2 -year history. Metro Gallery was packed to capacity most of the weekend, its concerts so popular that the windows were opened so people could hear from the sidewalks. Station North officials gave out more than 1,000 brochures promoting the district and signed up more than 500 people for their weekly events e-mail.

"I had people coming from the D.C. area who expressed a lot of interest and were really curious about what's happening here in Baltimore," said David Bielenberg, executive director of Station North Arts and Entertainment Inc., a nonprofit that manages the district.

Artscape officials said they would definitely return to Charles Street next year. They credited the midway set up on the Charles Street bridge, with interactive exhibits, as well as the concert stage in the 1700 block of the street with drawing crowds to the expanded Artscape, which is centered on Mount Royal Avenue.

"There were enough things to get people to not only turn the corner but to keep going to see what was next," said Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, pointing to the do-it-yourself exhibits that drew 100 new artists to the festival and the digital photo wall that displayed shots of festivalgoers.

"It was a good thing we did expand, because we needed the space," Gilmore said. "There were plenty of people to spread around the entire site. ... Now there's thousands and thousands of people who know what's in the district, where before they might not have known those businesses existed."

The city does not make crowd estimates for Artscape, billed as the country's largest free public arts festival, but Gilmore said hundreds of thousands of people attended. "We don't care what the number is as long as everybody's happy," he said.

Metro Gallery at Charles and Lanvale streets was at its 246-person capacity for much of the weekend. Owner Sara Williams said that before the festival she was worried about a mosh pit forming for the concerts the gallery hosted or people running into the $35,000 paintings. Instead, the paintings survived, the bathrooms weren't trashed and people gathered on the sidewalk to listen to the music when the gallery filled up.

"There was a lot of exposure to people who hadn't been here before, like from the county, so that was really good for us," Williams said. "Me and my boyfriend ran the bar and it was just holding on for dear life the whole time."

She said they sold out of drinks - always a good sign. Likewise, Tapas Teatro restaurant reported better-than-average business for a summer weekend, with people filling its outdoor tables to take in Artscape from the sidewalk.

But the Charles Theatre did not fare quite as well. Owner James "Buzz" Cusack said business was down more than half compared with a normal weekend. He said the shutdown of the street and the tight parking scared people away from the movies. He said Artscape was a "wonderful thing" for the city and that people seemed to enjoy themselves.

"It's just too bad for us," he said. "What are you going to do?"

Gilmore said the city should work more closely with Cusack next year to create Artscape-specific opportunities to get people into the theater. Other lessons were also apparent: Twenty-five picnic tables that were set up in a Charles Street parking garage were removed and put on the street Saturday morning, when it became clear people wanted to be on the street to take in the festival.

But overall, merchants reported a successful weekend. Load of Fun Studios, at North Avenue and Howard Street, reported a steady stream of people coming to its erotic arts festival. Curator Suzannah Gerber said she was initially concerned that people wouldn't find their way over to the studio. But the place was packed, even though its building lacked air conditioning.

"It was boiling, and there were still hundreds of people having a great time," Gerber said. "It was totally beyond our expectations."

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