I am trying hard this weekend not to be grouch about Artscape. But when a three-day party with 350,000 people takes over your neighborhood it is easy to be irritated. As Artscape gets "edgier," so do I.
I reside in Bolton Hill, where most of the festival activities are held and where it seems almost everybody attending Artscape tries to park or drive through. I have lived through all 28 Artscapes. It is a remarkable celebration but it is gigantic — the largest free arts festival in America. It is not just the three-day drumbeat of fried food and loud music that gets to me; there are also the ever growing pre-party preparations and post-bash cleanup to cope with. Artscape grows, like a virus.
"Don't be a grouch, live with it," my wife tells me. But she is a better person than I.
So the other day, when I spotted a news story quoting a person complaining about Artscape, I brightened. Here was a soul mate. Jack Purdy, who lives in Hampden and rides the train to his job in Washington, voiced his objection about the weeklong restrictions on street parking put in place around Penn Station to accommodate Artscape activities. "I am mortified that the police and the Department of Public Works revel in making it more and more difficult every year to get in and out the city's train station," he told The Baltimore Sun's Michael Dresser. Mr. Purdy continued that "all this seems to be done so the suburbanites can come into town when it is hot as blazes, eat bad funnel cake, and gawk at worse art."
I agree with Mr. Purdy on the funnel cake but not about the art. One of my good friends is an artist (OK, a photographer) and his work has been displayed at Artscape (OK, maybe just on the walls of the Mount Royal Tavern) during Artscape. Yet Artscape does present the opportunity for a curmudgeon like me to bump into some erudition. A few Artscapes ago, I attended a terrific poetry reading by Billy Collins. It was my kind of culture, the air-conditioned kind, held in comfortable chairs in a University of Baltimore auditorium.
But on Mr. Purdy's gripe about traffic and the festival's tendency to forget about the people who live and work in the affected neighborhoods, I am with him.
Over the years there has definitely been an increase in the phenomenon I call "barricade creep." It used to be that the barricades closing down Mount Royal Avenue and other nearby streets did not go up until one or two days before Artscape. Now they go up much earlier — Monday, this year — and stay up longer, some up to eight days.
When you close streets in the middle of the city, you create congestion. Some snarls are probably unavoidable. To make hold a street fair, you gotta block some streets. But you don't need to block off all the streets all week long. Monday evening, for instance, I stood in front of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and watched westbound traffic come to a virtual standstill as it was prohibited from continuing on Preston Street. The barricaded street was virtually unoccupied, just a trailer and mobile power station parked on the curb lane. The barricades could have come down, or better yet could have not been put up, and the traffic bottleneck could have been avoided for a few days.
These are minor matters, my wife tells me.
I already have enough irritations in my life, I tell her, I don't need more.
In an effort to recall a time of quieter summer amusements in Baltimore, I telephoned Philip Arnoult. I asked him about the series of Monday Music at Mount Royal concerts that he, then the head of the Baltimore Theatre Project, had cooked up in the late 1970s with Fred Lazarus, president of the Maryland Institute College of Art.
The performances by local musicians were held on a stage set up at the bottom of the dell in front of the old Mount Royal Train station. In many ways, these Monday night concerts were precursors to Artscape.
"It was summer. it was hot. So we said, 'Let's have an outdoor music series,'" Mr. Arnoult recalled.
"We had a few sponsors," Mr. Lazarus recalled when I called him. "I think we passed the hat through the crowd as well. We had maybe a thousand people there."
Mr. Arnoult said the location was ideal. The steep pitch of the grassy hill created what showbiz professionals call an ideal "rake," meaning that almost anyone sitting on the hill could see the stage. "It is a very graceful spot," he said.
A few years later, along came Artscape. It, too, made use of that natural arena. It brought in nationally known musical acts, and a lot more people. The theory of Artscape seems to be: lure folks in with free music and they will wander into art. The luring certainly has worked. In recent years an additional enticement, handing out free samples of consumer products, has been added to Artscape. What grabbing a box of free cereal has to do with artistic experience eludes me.
This weekend, that stage in front of the old train station will be surrounded by thousands. Music groups will perform on it and a handful of other Artscape stages from noon until late into the night. I might show up as well, if I am not too cranky.