A city tradition now, but Artscape wasn't always a sure thing

The first festival in 1982 was cold and wet, and crowds were by no means guaranteed

  • Three-year-old Karen Rugh pinches street performer Russell Brown's nose at the first Artscape in 1982.
Three-year-old Karen Rugh pinches street performer Russell… (Baltimore Sun File Photo )
July 09, 2011|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

Kathy Hornig's "to do" list for the week includes closing down 12 of the busiest streets in Baltimore — Mount Royal Avenue, Charles Street, Cathedral Street and others — for most of a week.

She will oversee the installation of the more than 175 mushroom-colored tents that will make up the backbone of the 30th annual Artscape. Before the three-day annual festival opens at noon Friday, Hornig, Artscape's director, will take charge of more than 300 volunteers, ensure that the 17 generators are functioning and that the 122 portable toilets arrive as scheduled.

In the past three decades, Artscape has grown so large and popular and has become such a source of civic pride that it's easy to assume that the festival's success was inevitable. Its organizers boast that it is the largest free urban cultural festival in the country.

"We challenge anyone to find a festival with the quantity and caliber of cultural events that Artscape offers that doesn't have a ticket price," says Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, which runs Artscape.

But in the beginning, Artscape scraped by.

Before the festival welcomed its first visitors on June 11, 1982, festival organizers publicly worried that they wouldn't draw enough visitors to fill five city blocks, while newspaper articles praised the uncrowded "super-wide" streets and short lines outside food booths

It rained steadily for two days straight, the high temperature on Sunday was 62 degrees, and some festival-goers wore down coats.

Delicate artworks in the grass got drenched, causing some artists to pack up early. The big Ray Charles concert had to be moved to the Fifth Regiment Armory. Vendors lost money on sales of beer and sweet corn.

"None of us had ever planned a festival before," says Fred Lazarus, president of the Maryland Institute College of Art and one of the early organizers. "We figured it out as we went along. We had to decide how to distribute the crowds, where people were going to park, where to put the food vendors," he said. "The fact that Artscape survived is remarkable."

In the past three decades, the extravaganza has more than doubled in size geographically, while the budget has more than tripled to $850,000. Now, roughly 350,000 people attend Artscape. The number of exhibiting visual artists has grown by 50 percent, and genres new to the festival, such as film and fashion, are drawing crowds.

In recognition of the extent to which the festival has developed and matured, this year's Artscape has planned several events to celebrate its origins, from a commemorative poster to a closing display of fireworks.

But, the festival might never have gotten to this point if Lazarus and Jody Albright of the Mayor's Advisory Commission on Arts and Culture hadn't jointly decided to take a risk. It would never have thrived without the enthusiastic backing of Mayor William Donald Schaefer and generous financial support from the city.

"Jody deserves a huge amount of credit," Lazarus says. "Public Works didn't want to take on a project this large, but she sold the idea of the festival to everyone involved."

If Artscape were being planned for the first time in 2011 instead of in 1982, it might never have gotten off the ground, Lazarus says. "There was a spirit in 1982 of trying new things and supporting new things that you don't have today. There isn't the same kind of commitment to public art projects that there was three decades ago."

Earl Arnett is a Baltimore journalist and critic who worked as a music consultant to Artscape during the early years. In the early 1980s, he said, the city was still recovering from a crisis of confidence caused by the 1968 riots. He thinks residents embraced Artscape because they saw it as a way to unify a badly divided population.

"Before 1968, a lot of people thought that Baltimore would never have riots," Arnett says. "Desegregation efforts and the civil rights movement were a lot less confrontational here then they were in other cities."

"Then the looting began. People died, whole blocks were burned down, and the National Guard moved in. Fourteen years later, people were still trying to get over their disappointment. They were still trying to prove that large groups of black and white residents could get together in Baltimore and enjoy one another through art and music."

Artscape's predecessor was the Baltimore Arts Festival. But, the fair, which ran during the mid-1970s, was held in Hopkins Plaza, a small, rather forbidding concrete square surrounded by office buildings.

Schaefer was interested in showcasing the city's arts and cultural groups. And Lazarus was interested in salvaging the economically blighted neighborhood in which his college was located, so he proposed that the arts festival be relocated in front of MICA

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