Last year, the inaugural Light City Baltimore drew 400,000 people to the Inner Harbor. With this year's second annual "festival of light, music and innovation" set to kick off March 31, organizers are determined to weave the celebration even more firmly into the fabric of the entire city.
Toward that end, they are drawing more communities into the festivities, increasing the number of satellite Neighborhood Lights celebrations; getting buildings throughout the city to light up in the festival's signature colors; and figuratively amping up the wattage of the local installations along the festival's 1.5-mile Light Art Walk.
All that, and they're increasing the duration of the festival as well. While last year's inaugural Light City ran for seven days, this year's sophomore edition will run for nine, until April 8.
"Oh my gosh, we learned so many lessons from the inaugural year, on so many different levels," says Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, which is again producing the festival. "It's going to feel and look very different," he promised.
Visitors to Light City's Inner Harbor location will experience a brighter and more impressive landscape, says Kathleen Hornig, festivals director for BOPA. While most people who showed up last year enjoyed the experience, she said, some voiced disappointment with the breadth of some installations. Overmatched by the crowds and somewhat dwarfed by the surroundings, some of the illuminated artworks didn't display as impressively as organizers had hoped.
"We learned a lot about building things on a scale that you need," Hornig said. "When you're in a setting at the Inner Harbor, it requires you to scale up.
"For this year's festival," she added, "our motto is, 'Bigger, brighter, bolder.'"
Light City 2017 has a budget of $4 million, raised by BOPA from businesses, foundations, private funders and revenue from food and beverages. Last year's inaugural Light City cost $3.8 million, with a revenue shortfall of $400,000 that organizers attributed to growing pains of a first-year event. The shortfall was covered through fundraising and other revenue and was not picked up by taxpayers, according to officials at BOPA.
Speaking a day before new Census data indicated a substantial drop in Baltimore's population, Mayor Catherine Pugh this week cited festival coverage in national media and said she sees Light City as a savvy means to promote Baltimore, tourism and businesses.
"It is great in terms of how we rebrand Baltimore and put a positive spin on some of the many things that occur in our city," she said. " ... I think the good thing about Light City, as you well know, is that it has moved out to the communities and neighborhoods. As [visitors] begin to tour the city, they get to see other parts of our city as well. I think it's a plus."
One discordant note from Light City's inception is still playing out. Dueling lawsuits concerning some design aspects and intellectual property associated with the festival have yet to be settled. Last year, BOPA filed suit against Brooke Hall and Justin Allen, the Roland Park couple who came up with the idea after seeing similar festivals in other cities. The suit asks that BOPA be declared the sole owner of the Light City name, logo and other marks. Hall and Allen filed a countersuit, asking a federal judge to bar the city from using trademarks associated with the event.
Gilmore said the suit would have no affect on this year's festival, but otherwise declined to discuss the litigation, which has yet to come to trial. The couple did not respond to requests for comment from The Baltimore Sun.
In all, 23 illuminated installations will be set up along this year's Light Art Walk, stretching from the Maryland Science Center north and east to Harbor East; that's down from 28 last year, which is what happens when the size of the artwork is increased, but not the size of the Art Walk.
All installations are the handiwork of artists from either Baltimore or, with one exception, outside the U.S. They include everything from a giant egg people can walk inside (courtesy of the Belgian OVO Collective) to a literal "House of Cards" (brightly lit giant playing cards, the work of the Israeli OGE Group) to Baltimore artist Eric Dyer's "Shabamanetica," a pair of circular sculptures, resembling giant ships' wheels, displaying motion collages that call to mind three prime destinations for international cargo: Shanghai, Panama and Baltimore.
"I was encouraged to think about my work on a larger scale, and outdoors, and interactive," said Dyer, who teaches animation at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "That was an exciting step for me."
Dyer visited Light City last year, even though his proposed installation was turned down. He counts himself among the festival's biggest fans.
"I was completely amazed last year when I went down to the festival with my family, and it was completely packed," Dyer said. "I've never seen so many people around the harbor, and I've never seen so many people experiencing art together, people from all walks of life."
Only two works from 2016 are returning: the crowd-favorite giant "Peacock" and its plumage (illuminated by some 20,000 LED lights) and New York artist Jen Lewin's "The Pool," a reimagined version of a ground-level installation that delighted visitors last year (especially since it was interactive, and spread over a large area).
"From what I've seen, the artworks coming this year look more impressive," said Tim Scofield of Baltimore, half of the creative team responsible for "The Peacock." As for their bird, he said, "we haven't really changed it at all; maybe the lights work a little better than they did before."
Scofield notes that he and his partner, Kyle Miller, had proposed a different installation for this year, an illuminated windmill. "I guess it wasn't as good," he said. "It was probably not as dramatic, and if the wind was as bad as it was last year, we could have had some problems."
More glowing art will also be visible in neighborhoods throughout the city. Whereas last year's Neighborhood Lights expanded the Light City celebration into five Baltimore neighborhoods, that number has been increased for 2017 to eight. The new locations are Hamilton Lauraville, Waverly and Sandtown-Winchester.
"This is really such a wonderful opportunity to bring people from Baltimore and from outside Baltimore into our community," said Emilie Aracil Drasher, executive director of Waverly Main Street. "I'm hoping that it creates some good buzz around our area. We want people to come out at night and see the great things that are happening here."
In addition to generating some positive city-wide vibes for Waverly, Drasher sees benefits in connecting with an artist — in this case, Jose Andres Rosero-Curet, whose "Protean" installation will be a sound-and-light show housed within a 20-foot shipping container.
North and east, in Hamilton Lauraville, artist Maura Dwyer's "FloraLume" taps into what she sees as the community's love of its native plants and vegetables. It's a mural created in the 4500 block of Harford Road with fluorescent paint that, when darkness falls and the UV lights are turned on, will appear to dance.
"People here are really proud of their backyard gardens, and I wanted to reflect that," said Dwyer, noting that the building on which the mural rests will, come summer, be turned into a commercial kitchen and soup pavilion for the neighborhood.
Dwyer, who grew up in the area, says she's noticed more emphasis being placed on the Neighborhood Lights celebrations this year. That could go a long way, she said, toward solidifying Light City's place in Baltimore's collective psyche.
"I've seen them marketing the Neighborhood Lights program a lot more, which speaks light years about their commitment," she says of the festival's organizers. "Something like this can have a huge impact on a neighborhood."
And it's not just the Neighborhood Lights communities that are being drawn into the celebration from outside Light City's immediate footprint. Throughout Baltimore, building owners are being asked to turn their lights on in a show of illuminated solidarity. Called "Brilliant Baltimore," all of the city's police stations will be participating, as well as fire stations and assorted public and private buildings, including Sinai Hospital, Miller's Court in Remington and Locust Point's Silo Point condominiums.
Other communities are getting involved, as well. Canton and Fells Point will be staging their own celebrations. At Loyola University Maryland, student artwork, much of it created especially for the occasion, will go on display as part of what is being called "Luminous Connections." Much of the campus will be illuminated in green (in line with the school's Evergreen campus) and purple.
Their participation in Light City, a university spokeswoman said, will help emphasize to students how intertwined Loyola and Baltimore are.
"We really want to bring it to our campus, and have our students really understand what Light City stands for," said Stephanie Weaver, noting organizers' desire to brand Baltimore as a hotbed of progress and innovation. "We want to show our students that we are invested in our city, and we want them to be invested as well."
Plus, she added, using words that every person involved with Light City should love hearing: "It's fun."
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.
If you go
The second Light City Baltimore festival runs March 31-April 8 at the Inner Harbor, centering on the BGE Light Art Walk, which extends from the Maryland Science Center, Light Street and Key Highway, and runs north and east to Harbor East. Hours are 7 p.m.-11 p.m. weekdays, 7 p.m.-midnight Fridays and Saturdays. Admission is free.
Satellite Neighborhood Lights art installations and celebrations are taking place in eight neighborhoods: Coldstream Homestead Montebello, Greater Mondawmin, Hamilton Lauraville, Hampden, Little Italy, Sandtown-Winchester, Station North and Waverly.
Labs@LightCity, a series of conferences focusing on innovation and featuring local and national leaders in various fields, will run from 8 a.m.-6 p.m. April 3-8 at the IMET Columbia Center, 700 E. Pratt St. Individual labs will focus on health (April 3), the environment (April 4), education (April 5), society (April 6), design (April 7) and food (April 8). Tickets are $149 for the first lab, $99 for each additional. (All tickets are on sale through March 27 for $99; use promo code LUCKY99 at checkout.)