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Baltimore’s Artscape 2021 canceled due to COVID, organizers announce; July 4th still unknown

Artscape, the popular Baltimore summertime art and music festival, will not be held for the second straight summer due to ongoing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, organizers announced Friday.

The Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, which hosts the annual festival, included the cancellation in its Summer 2021 calendar. Canceling the festival in Midtown and Station North attended by as many as 300,000 was a COVID-19 measure, the arts council said, advising that “avoiding large public gatherings will help to ensure the health and safety of residents and visitors.”

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“We are disappointed to cancel Artscape again this year, but the health and safety of Baltimore citizens is our primary concern,” said Donna Drew Sawyer, CEO of the organization known as BOPA. “We look forward to celebrating together as a city next summer once it is safe to do so.”

No decision has been made regarding whether the city will host its usual festivities for the Fourth of July, which typically feature live music and fireworks in the Inner Harbor downtown.

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“Guided by the City’s Health Department, BOPA will continue to monitor the COVID impact on Baltimore’s 4th of July Celebration and the Picnic at the Top of the World Observation Level and, in conjunction with the Mayor’s office, make an announcement closer to the event,” BOPA said.

The cancellation of Artscape comes as another hit to Baltimore’s arts community, which endured more than a year of scrapped events, openings and live productions. A report this week from the nonprofit Americans for the Arts estimates that the average artist has lost nearly $50,000 in “creativity-based income” during the pandemic.

“It is really sad because it’s just going to be one more blow to those artists,” said Jeannie Howe, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, a regional group that participates in Artscape.

Launched in 1982 near the Maryland Institute College of Art, Artscape bills itself as the area’s “largest and most beloved annual arts festival.” Even in the July heat, Artscape typically draws massive throngs of people to the closed-down streets of Midtown-Belvedere and Station North.

Chris Brown, an engineer who lives in the city’s Woodberry neighborhood, usually goes to Artscape and appreciates the festival for the mix of people it brings together.

“Baltimore can be a little bit stratified,” he said.

In contrast, he said, Artscape appeals to a diverse cross section of people from various neighborhoods and walks of life.

Brown said he didn’t understand why organizers didn’t just postpone the event rather than cancel it, pointing to rising vaccination rates and the low risk of transmission outdoors. A cultural event like Artscape “would be such a positive thing,” he said. “I hope the city doesn’t lose a taste for it.”

“It takes a legion of people” to put on the festival, said BOPA spokeswoman Lauren Young in an email.

“Hundreds of people work on just the physical implementation of Artscape and they [do] it in close quarters so there is no way we can safely mount a large public event like this — outdoors or indoors and ensure the health and safety of the staff, crew or the public,” Young wrote.

Young did not say what BOPA will do with the money budgeted for Artscape, but said sponsors were hesitant to donate and participate due to the uncertainty regarding large events over the last year. BOPA spends between $600,000 and a million dollars to put on the festival, funded through sponsorships and fundraising, Young said.

Howe said she understands BOPA’s decision to scrap the festival, given the large turnout it usually sees.

“People are very, very close together, then you have the added complication of food and beverage. ... I imagine there’s a level of complexity there,” Howe said.

Tools liked timed entry tickets to manage crowds could be difficult or impossible, given the festival format, she added. “It’s just not that type of event.”

BOPA also hosts the weekly Baltimore Farmers’ Market & Bazaar beneath the Jones Falls Expressway, and in a news release encouraged Artscape fans to go to the market to “experience some of the art, food, and festival atmosphere of Artscape every Sunday from 7 a.m. to noon.”

Artscape is not the only 2021 arts festival to face cancellation. In Nevada, organizers are postponing Burning Man, which sees thousands take to the Black Rock Desert. Closer to Maryland, the Smithsonian’s annual Folk Life Festival will take place in a virtual format, delaying a return to the National Mall until 2022.

Traditional citywide celebrations are expected to return in the summer of 2022.

Howe said she’s not worried people will forget Artscape.

“It’s such an institutional part of Baltimore,” she said. “It’s the kind of event that draws people from all different communities. ... I really think that when people feel safe they will come and flock back to it.”

While this year’s festival is canceled, one element isn’t. An in-person finalists’ exhibition for the Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize will take place at the Walters Art Museum from Thursday, May 27, through Sunday, July 18.

The prize comes with a $25,000 fellowship “to assist in furthering the career of a visual artist or visual artist collaborators living and working in the Greater Baltimore region.”

This year’s finalists are: Hoesy Corona, Tsedaye Makonnen, Jonathan Monaghan, Lavar Munroe and Hae Won Sohn. The winner will be announced July 10 during a virtual award ceremony, which will be streamed on BOPA’s YouTube and Facebook.

Baltimore Sun reporter Taylor DeVille contributed to this article.

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