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Arts

Returning in 2023, Baltimore’s Artscape to expand to five days and widen footprint to include Station North

Artscape will expand from three days to five when the beloved Baltimore outdoor arts festival returns in 2023 following a three-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic under plans announced Thursday by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts.

The festival’s footprint also will expand, radiating out from its traditional locations in Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon and into the neighborhoods of the Station North Arts District, including Charles North, Greenmount West and Barclay.

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The new blueprint for Artscape appears to strike a compromise that will allow BOPA CEO Donna Drew Sawyer to pursue aspects of her vision of uplifting neighborhoods while retaining traditional features intended to appease her most vocal critics.

Sawyer said Thursday that Artscape will take place Sept. 20-24, moving the festival, as expected, from the sweltering heat and thunderstorms of July, when it traditionally was held, to the milder weather of September.

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Using a larger area for the festival, while keeping its traditional neighborhoods, might mollify such critics as Baltimore City Councilman Eric Costello, whose 11th district represents the areas in which Artscape always has taken place.

Costello said Thursday that he doesn’t have an immediate reaction because he’s still studying the plans unveiled Thursday.

Donna Drew Sawyer, CEO of Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA), describes the new vision for Artscape, which returns next year as a five-day festival from Sept. 20-24. The footprint of the popular festival will expand from Bolton Hill and N. Charles Street into Station North. She spoke at a press conference with Mayor Brandon Scott and other community leaders at the Parkway Theatre.

That new blueprint will allow Sawyer to bring Artscape’s free-spending festival goers into communities that could benefit from the economic boost, and to introduce Artscape’s audience to new artists.

Ellen James, executive director of the Central Baltimore Partnership, said that expanding Artscape into Station North will be a boon to the painters, jewelry-makers and entrepreneurs living and working in the neighborhoods she described as “the crossroads of the city.”

“Bringing the city’s premier festival here is so important,” James said. “It will ensure that all of these people who are working so hard to create a vibrant, thriving, diverse and inclusive community, will have a chance to take part in Artscape.”

Sawyer added that BOPA plans to make a “substantial” capital investment to the communities in which Artscape will be held by sprucing up vacant lots and adding murals, better lighting and traffic-calming measures.

“We wanted to make sure that Artscape has an impact that lasts beyond the festival,” she said. “These efforts won’t be limited to the festival days, but will happen throughout the year and remain afterward.”

Thursday’s news conference capped a tumultuous six months for BOPA, a quasi-governmental agency. The City Council introduced a resolution to withhold $196,000 in city funds from BOPA — money that was previously allocated to mount festivals in 2022 that never occurred. Details about a revamped Artscape and other festivals (Light City, the Baltimore Book Festival) were slow to emerge and when they did, were subject to revision.

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For instance, over the summer BOPA announced on its website that Artscape would return Sept. 13-17, 2023, but backed off after learning that those dates conflicted with the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana.

Pushing the festival back by one week doesn’t avoid a conflict altogether; Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, begins at sundown Sept. 24, just as Artscape will be winding down.

“We will not do any programming during Yom Kippur,” Sawyer said Thursday.

Howard Libit, executive director of The Baltimore Jewish Council, said that no one from BOPA had reached out to his group when planning the festival. But he predicted that holding the festival’s final day on Yom Kippur will have a relatively minor impact on Jewish artists.

“Some artists may choose to pack up a little early to prepare for the holiday,” he said. “But it’s much less of an issue than it was when Artscape was going to cut across Rosh Hashana.”

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott expressed unqualified support Thursday for Sawyer, who has come under fire recently for some well-publicized missteps.

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“No one is perfect,” Scott said after the news conference announcing plans for the 2023 Artscape. “I was adamant throughout the process that we were going to make this happen. I confidently believe that [Sawyer] and her staff will pull off Artscape without a hitch.”

The festival will begin with an opening-night gala. Activities on the remaining four days will include art exhibits, an artists’ marketplace, a conversation series with artists and writers, a film festival, a music and beer garden, and live music performances on the main stage.

Artscape 2023 also will add a new element: an artist’s pavilion featuring leading contemporary artists curated by the acclaimed Baltimore-born, Brooklyn-based artist Derrick Adams.

Earlier this year, Adams received a $1.25 million grant from New York’s Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to create a Black Baltimore Digital Database, a new archive cataloging important cultural contributions by Black Baltimoreans.

The archive will be in Baltimore’s Waverly neighborhood, where Adams also is developing a second project: an artists-in-residency program called the Last Resort Artist Retreat.

Also new for 2023: The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will perform a free, outdoor music concert Sept. 24, presided over by its new music director, Jonathon Heyward. It will be Heyward’s third public concert after he begins his new job.

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“We’re thrilled that Artscape is moving from July to September because that allows the BSO to be a full participant,” BSO President Mark C. Hanson said. “This will allow us to introduce our new music director to many more people.”

State Sen. Antonio Hayes, a Democrat whose district encompasses most of the city’s cultural institutions, praised BOPA’s leadership for developing a “thoughtful and bold and inclusive vision for the future of Artscape.”

But while Thursday’s news conference was long on inspiration, it was short on specifics.

For example, will the Festival include a mix of national artists and local talent, as it has in the past? What will the budget be for the new festival, and how much money has been raised so far? How many musical stages and what kinds of acts will perform there?

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Sawyer shrugged off the last question, saying: “We’re still in the planning process.”

BOPA laid off most of its festivals staff during the pandemic, and some observers have wondered how BOPA is going to run a larger event with a smaller staff.

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Shelonda Stokes, president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, provided a partial answer.

“What’s exciting about this plan for Artscape is that it’s bringing all of these different groups under the same tent,” she said. “This isn’t just about BOPA having to carry water alone. They will have a lot of support and a lot of help.”

Hayes, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said he’s exploring the possibility that the state could contribute financially to a revitalized Artscape.

“For many years, the burden of putting on Artscape has fallen on the city,” he said. “I think that it’s time that the state begins to play a role. I think the vision they presented today is exciting.

“And Artscape doesn’t just benefit people in Baltimore. It benefits Maryland.”


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