Following one of the city's most divisive years in decades, the inaugural Light City Baltimore — a festival of "light, music and innovation" — will take over the Inner Harbor Monday through next Sunday.
Organizers eventually want the festival to mean to Baltimore what South by Southwest means to Austin, Texas, or what the Sundance Festival means to Park City, Utah.
Planners were not sure the timing — nearly one year after the April riots — was right for the launch of a project as ambitious as Light City Baltimore, which will feature illuminated art installations, musicians including DJ Jazzy Jeff and a speaker series focused on innovation.
But then organizers talked to Baltimore residents. Jamie McDonald, founder of GiveCorps, a Baltimore-based online fundraising collective, and chair of the Light City Steering Committee, recalled the meetings she and her co-planners had throughout the city.
"Everywhere we went, people said, 'We need this more than ever,'" she said. "We don't want to only be known as that week of images on CNN. We want to be known for all the great and amazing everyday people that are just doing the right things, going about living their lives, taking care of their families and being productive citizens.
"We saw Light City as a chance, really first and foremost, for us to celebrate our own community, together."
Planners have big dreams for Light City, which they see as an annual event that will make Baltimore a go-to tourist destination for one week every spring. And while some artists and other groups expressed initial skepticism over the plans, most seem to have been won over by promises of inclusion and openness. The stage has been set, experts suggest, for a world-class event with a serious economic and emotional upside for the city.
Holding such a distinctive festival is important when it comes to branding Baltimore as a place people want to visit, said Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, which is sponsoring Light City. Gilmore and McDonald said they found much of their inspiration Down Under — from what Vivid Sydney means to Sydney, Australia. That annual festival of light, music and ideas is in its seventh year.
"It's important for our image, nationally, for people to say, 'There's something really cool happening down in Baltimore,'" Gilmore said. "'Let's jump on the train or the Bolt bus or whatever and come down and check it out.' That's something to be proud of."
Light City has a long way to go if it expects to become another Vivid Sydney or South by Southwest. But if it does, the rewards could be substantial.
South by Southwest, which includes music, movies and interactive components, attracted about 90,000 participants in 2015 (in 1987, its first year, 700 people were registered for opening day). Last year's 10-day SXSW had an estimated $317.2 million impact on the Austin economy, according to figures provided by the festival.
In its first year, 2009, Vivid Sydney attracted 225,000 visitors. By 2015, that number had climbed to 1.7 million over the festival's 18 nights. About $63 million in visitor spending was pumped into the New South Wales economy, according to figures provided by Stuart Ayres, New South Wales' minister for trade, tourism and major events.
"Each year, Vivid Sydney delights and entertains more visitors from across the globe as it transforms our Harbour city into a spectacular canvas of creativity and innovation," Ayres wrote in an email.
Baltimore tourism officials had originally projected about 350,000 people would attend this year's inaugural festival, based on figures from Artscape and similar events. But they have since shied away from predicting attendance.
This year's seven-night festival, which has been in the making for nearly three years, will feature 28 illuminated art installations spread along a 11/2-mile stretch of Light and Pratt streets, extending from the Maryland Science Center to Harbor East. Dan Deacon, Robert DeLong and other musicians will perform on two stages, with a third reserved for such groups as Single Carrot Theatre and Fluid Movement water ballet.
And during the day, Light City U, a series of conferences on innovation in the arts, society, medicine and sustainability, will feature thinkers and visionaries from across the country.
Baltimore has the right goals in mind, said economist Richard Clinch, executive director of the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute. He estimates that the inaugural festival will have an economic impact on the city of $10 million to $30 million — a figure that will only get bigger if Light City takes hold and continues to grow.
"A festival like this has a strategic marketing value, assuming it works," Clinch said. "If they can pull off what South by Southwest does, it helps put a place on the map.
"It's kind of like the Preakness. For one race every year, everybody's talking about Baltimore. Hopefully, this festival can be like that."
A successful Light City could also undo some of the damage to Baltimore's reputation that resulted from news coverage of the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year old black man who suffered spinal injuries in police custody, the festival's boosters say.
"The damage that is done from that, from a tourism and convention and visitor standpoint, can be significant," said Chris McMurry, senior vice president and public relations director at the Owings Mills-based communications firm MGH. "We have some clients that are associations, and when I mention the idea of a meeting in Baltimore, it's been met with some skepticism lately.
"You need to have this sort of goal, to do something that is so positive, like this event has the potential to be. It changes the story. It changes the dialogue."
Light City Baltimore has not been without its skeptics. Some have suggested that the festival's $3.5 million budget, raised through private sponsorships, could have been more wisely spent within the existing arts community.
Others say that placing the festival in the tourist magnet that is the Inner Harbor suggests it is more geared to out-of-towners than city residents (a complaint organizers tried to head off by having satellite events, dubbed "Neighborhood Lights," staged in Coldstream Homestead Montebello, Hampden, Greater Mondawmin, Little Italy and Station North).
"They came to town and they wanted it to go a certain way," said Sheila Gaskins, a stand-up comic, actor and arts advocate who was one of the founders of the Art-Part'heid movement, an effort to increase the awareness of black artists on the Baltimore cultural scene. "The black artists in the black community started to go to their meetings and started to say that it needs to be done a certain way, and that way is to include people of color in the decision-making process.
"They pretty much listened to what the black artists said, and they are evenly distributing the wealth of Light City," said Gaskins, who has no official role in Light City. "They could have ignored us primarily, but they didn't, which I was really glad about."
Although the performance lineup includes a healthy percentage of men and women of color, only a handful of the artists responsible for the 28 light installations are black, Asian or Hispanic. But even that is tolerable, Gaskins said, given Light City's apparent commitment to inclusion.
"Trust me, that is a milestone," she said. "They could have done Light City with 28 white artists and thought it was OK. Shoot, by the next Light City, it might be even."
Participating artists, about two-thirds of them from the Baltimore area, were chosen by a jury, based strictly on the projects submitted, Gilmore said, a system that could be tweaked for future festivals.
The artists of Luminous Intervention — an outgrowth of Occupy Baltimore that since 2012 has been projecting images onto buildings, bridges and other structures as a form of social protest — initially eyed Light City with suspicion. The group had even considered disrupting the festival at one point.
"We were considering projecting on the margins of Light City, doing more of what we do," said Mike McGuire, 43, a carpenter and Baltimore native living in Hampden. "What we were talking about was going to be pushing the envelope a little bit. We were talking about doing something on the final night that could potentially land our people in legal trouble."
But the more he and others learned about Light City, McGuire said, the more comfortable the group was with taking part.
"I talked with some of the folks that I knew were involved, and I said, 'Is political art totally out of the scope of what this thing is doing?' And the folks I talked to said, 'Not at all. In fact, we're a little bit concerned that there won't be any,'" he said. "So I was, like, 'Game on!'"
The group's "Pipelines" installation will feature images of some of the people whose deaths have inspired the Black Lives Matter movement — including Gray, Tyrone West, Michael Brown and Sandra Bland — projected onto the myriad surfaces of the McKeldin fountain.
In addition to being inclusive, Gilmore said, Light City is funneling a substantial part of its budget back into the local arts community.
"A lot of the private money that we're raising is going back into the community," Gilmore said. "We're hiring artists, we're hiring performers, we're hiring technical companies and part-time production assistants to really do all the hard work and bring the festival to life. It's a real infusion of capital and jobs."
While Light City was not planned in response to the unrest, organizers hope that the event helps unite the city.
"What we hope," McDonald said, "is that people will take advantage of the opportunity to share a common experience of something that is beautiful and inspiring and thought-provoking, and that will celebrate our common humanity as citizens of our city."
Ideally, the restorative glow surrounding Light City could recall one of the happy byproducts of the City Fair. That annual neighborhood-focused celebration was envisioned in 1970 as a way for Baltimoreans to come together again after the devastating riots of 1968, which started in the wake of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. More than 1,000 city businesses were looted during the riots; property damage within the city was estimated at $13.5 million (about $71.8 million today). Six people were killed, about 700 injured and 5,300 arrested.
"The underlying idea [of the City Fair] was totally based on the fact that the city needed to heal, and neighborhoods needed to get with each other and rebuild a sense of community," said Stan Heuisler, a former editor of Baltimore magazine who was recruited to serve as entertainment chair for the inaugural fair.
During Sept. 25-27, about 350,000 people came to Charles Center for that first fair. The mood was festive, the atmosphere convivial. And the City Fair continued to be an annual rallying point for the city until the last one in 1991.
"By any measure, it certainly wildly exceeded expectations," Heuisler said.
The final preparations for Light City have been going on in earnest since Monday, when artists were allowed to start setting up their installations. Many are convinced they are getting in on the ground floor of something great.
"I think it's fantastic," said Tim Scofield, 45, one of four artists responsible for a 20-foot-tall illuminated preening peacock to be displayed at Pier 5. "Baltimore really needs something like this."
More Light City
For more information on the artists, the festival founders and schedule, turn to the A&E section.
For Light City artist videos, an interactive map and complete coverage of the festival, go to baltimoresun.com/entertainment/light-city-baltimore.