Artscape crowds resilient in face of heavy rain, early closing

When Megan Davis woke up Saturday morning, looked out the window and saw the steady rains coming down, she wondered whether it would be crazy to follow through with her plan to visit Artscape, Baltimore’s free outdoor festival for the arts, as does most years.

Then she decided it would be crazy not to.

“I thought about staying home, but then I said to myself, ‘they call it a rain or shine event,’” said Davis with a laugh as the umbrella-toting Columbia resident made her way through the crowd at the rain-soaked festival Saturday afternoon. “The worst that can happen is you get wet.”

Attendance on the second day of Artscape was certainly smaller than usual and organizers shut the festival down at 6 p.m., citing heavy rain and "deteriorating conditions."

With an average of 350,000 visitors over the three-day weekend, Saturday typically draws about 100,000, and a festival official guessed attendance was about half that.

Before the evening closing, a multicolored sea of umbrellas flooded Mount Royal Avenue as soul and reggae music echoed through the streets and the smell of barbecue and pastries hung in the humid air.

“I’m thrilled just that folks are coming down and having a good time,” said veteran festival director Kathy Hornig, working Artscape for a 17th straight year. “I learned a long time ago in this business that you don’t control the weather. We’re not going to let a little rain get us down.

“Loyal Artscape-goers are a pretty hardy bunch. We’re as resilient as the city that hosts the festival,” she added.

The scenes along Mount Royal, up and down Charles Street and on the campuses of the University of Baltimore and the Maryland Institute College of Art bore her out.

On the median in Mount Royal, a crowd gyrated in the rain to no audible music. (They were wearing headphones and taking part in a “silent disco” attraction).

Hundreds of people, most wielding umbrellas, made their way through the traditional Artists’ Market, where 120 artists and artisans showed off original creations including photography, jewelry, hand-crafted paper and batik clothing.

Jay Durrah, a visual artist from Prince George’s County, stood in the cozy space of his tent as the rain fell and talked about his work — a form of modern-day Impressionism in which he employs bold colors, a single color per stroke, in fashioning lively portraits of celebrities such as Barack Obama and John Coltrane, friends and people he observes in the street.

Durrah said he did well enough on Friday to break even for the weekend — the skies were mostly clear and temperatures were in the 80s — but Saturday’s rain slowed things down a bit.

Still, he has seen worse weather than Saturday’s. A recent festival in Columbia was held on unpaved terrain, and the rains there made the ground so muddy that few people came to visit.

“If the weather were better, I’d be doing better, but you can’t beat the foot traffic,” Durrah said as three visitors stopped to admire his work.

Around the corner, on Charles, a dozen couples, their clothing soaked, danced in the street to Big Band music.

It was part of one of the festival’s most successful attractions, Dance Camp, a three-day outdoor dance festival operated by Guardian Baltimore, an artists’ collective that “acts as preserver and restorer of culture and heritage” by teaching and promoting dance styles that originated within African-American communities.

The group’s second day was dedicated to competitions in three styles — the Lindy Hop, with its roots in the Harlem Renaissance, Baltimore Club and Break.

Several dozen people crowded around to watch as half the couples were “tapped” out, leaving the rest to compete in the semifinals later, and the break dancing competition began on a smooth wooden floor under a tent.

“I’m happy with the turnout, given the conditions,” said Breai Mason-Campbell, director of the Guardian dance company. “People are getting wet, but here they are, literally dancing in the rain.”

As the rain grew stronger, however, festival organizers made the decision to close nearly all activities three hours early, by 6 p.m.

LOL@Artscape — an evening of standup with a lineup of local talent — remained on the docket for later in the evening at the BIG Theater, but the day’s much-anticipated headline event — a concert by legendary reggae band Toots & the Maytals on the MICA Main Stage — was called off.

Even so, at festival headquarters on the University of Baltimore campus, Hornig and her staff were looking forward with relish toward to the final day of the 37th annual Artscape Sunday.

The weather forecast called for an 80 percent chance of rain, but Hornig was keeping a sunny outlook.

“Our prediction is 100 percent Artscape with a chance of fun,” she said.

jonpitts@baltsun.com

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