Carlos-deShaun Brown stood on the corner of Charles Street and North Avenue 10 days before the opening of Artscape, held out his arm, and pointed toward a future that doesn’t yet exist.
Brown, logistics manager for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, indicated an empty lot framed by the lavenders, turquoises and corals of “Portals and Passageways,” a new mural by artist Jaz Erenberg. The colors were so warm they appeared to glow.
“Over there,” he said, “Derrick Adams, an artist who was born in Baltimore, is going to install giant shipping containers and hang art on them. This area will be full of food trucks and vendors, and across the street there’s going to be a huge light show.”
Artscape 2023 returns to Baltimore next weekend for the first time in four years, in September instead of in July, and with an expanded footprint. Because the festival’s future has occasionally appeared uncertain for much of the past 12 months, it has seemed as if the entire city has been collectively holding its breath.
Since Artscape debuted in 1982, it has become in some ways as essential a piece of Baltimore’s identity as its sports teams or the Inner Harbor. So when the 2020 and 2021 festivals were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a blow. And when the 2022 festival didn’t return, even as infections declined and other leisure activities resumed, many Baltimoreans who exhibited their work or sold food and crafts at Artscape were outraged.
Even after planning began for this year’s festival, public confidence was eroded by a series of missteps by BOPA, the quasi-governmental agency that mounts city celebrations.
As recently as Monday, a poster on Reddit asked plaintively, “Is this festival even actually happening?”
Against the odds, the answer appears to be “yes.”
“I’m so proud that Artscape is back,” said Todd Yuhanick, BOPA’s interim CEO. “Since I came aboard in June, everyone has pulled together to get Artscape off the ground. We know how important this festival is to Baltimore.”
‘Dimmer and dimmer’
Often promoted as the largest free outdoor public arts festival in the U.S., Artscape has attracted crowds of up to 350,000 from the Maryland region, and had an estimated economic impact of $28.5 million.
For almost four decades, Artscape aroused as little controversy on average as the Maryland State Fair.
That changed last year, when the festival was at the center of the deteriorating relationship between BOPA and Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration, according to emails recently obtained by The Baltimore Sun as part of a Maryland Public Information Act request.
As early as February 2022, Democratic City Councilman Eric Costello began pressing former BOPA CEO Donna Drew Sawyer for assurances that the festival would return that year.
In the past, BOPA’s staff raised about $1 million annually for Artscape through donations, but Sawyer told City Council members that funding sources dried up after the pandemic. She wrote in the emails obtained by The Sun that she was seeking to replace those donations with a $500,000 grant from the American Rescue Plan, a pot of federal COVID relief money distributed to states to bolster the economy.
“If that initial support does not come soon from the city’s ARPA funding, the prospect of producing Artscape 2022 unfortunately, gets dimmer and dimmer,” Sawyer wrote.
ARPA funds did come through, though not until 2023. Yuhanick wrote in an email to The Sun that BOPA received an initial $250,000 in March, and will receive an another $250,000 later this month. He added that every penny will be used to support Baltimoreans.
“The ARPA funding is allocated to fees for local artists, stage production expenses, equipment rentals ... and a portion of BOPA salaries to produce Artscape,” he wrote. “The [nationally based] main stage headliners are paid for by the city and by private funding secured by BOPA.”
In addition to lacking money to mount Artscape, BOPA also lacked staffing. During the pandemic, 20 of BOPA’s 36 employees — including the entire festivals staff — were laid off.
Sawyer was ousted in January after she ran afoul of Scott by canceling the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade for the third year in a row. The mayor’s office later organized its own parade.
As BOPA’s suddenly leaderless staff scrambled to forge ahead, festival planning was plagued by a series of blunders, from scheduling (the festival was pushed back by a week after the originally announced dates conflicted with the Jewish holy day of Rosh Hashana) to an attempt to trademark the “Artscape” name that was vehemently opposed by city attorneys, to contract disputes that resulted in the cancellation of a headliner concert by Kelly Rowland.
“My frustration with the previous BOPA administration is very well publicly documented,” said Costello, who represents Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon, the neighborhoods where Artscape traditionally takes place. “And I believe they are contributing factors to the situation we currently find ourselves in.”
‘A huge win’
In June, the City Council voted to withhold $1.7 million from BOPA for the current fiscal year, citing concerns over how the organization was being run.
Second-quarter funding of about $581,000 is expected to be restored later this month. Costello said BOPA has taken “concrete steps” to improve, including hiring a consultant to suggest changes in how the agency is governed.
Festival observers praised Costello and Tonya Miller Hall, senior adviser in the Mayor’s Office of Arts & Culture, for ensuring that Artscape remained on track and focused on local interests.
For example, restaurants located along the festival’s footprint will be able to serve customers on the sidewalks and streets for the first time at the 2023 festival without paying a four-figure fee. Previously, businesses that couldn’t afford that sum were restricted to serving customers inside their restaurants during the festival. This year, there will be no fee at all.
“This was a huge win for us,” said Jack Danna, director of commercial revitalization for the Central Baltimore Partnership, which encompasses Station North.
“Tonya made it clear from the very beginning that Artscape 2023 was going to be about what makes Baltimore great. She made sure our restaurants could go out into the street to maximize their visibility and benefit economically from the festival.”
Hall also was the impetus behind the initiative to commission permanent improvements for the neighborhoods in the Artscape footprint.
On a recent morning, a bulldozer moved earth around a vacant lot at the corner of North Charles Avenue and 20th Street across the street from a senior center. Once the ground is leveled, the lot will be landscaped and christened “Artscape Park.”
“I’m deeply invested in using art to create sustainable social change,” Hall said. “It’s incredible how something as simple as a mural or park can completely transform an environment.”
‘A lot of sweat and a lot of love’
The Baltimore-born artist Maya Hayuk was transforming a parking lot wall in the 1700 block of Charles Street with the bold geometric patterns she has become known for. She hopes future passersby will stop to observe her mural, try to make out the shapes inside it, and perhaps take a selfie, she said.
“I hope people can tell by the way I paint that this is an artwork,” Hayuk said. “It’s not a billboard. It’s not an advertisement. It took a lot of work, a lot of sweat and a lot of love.”
Costello sprang into action when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Maryland Institute College of Art, University of Baltimore and The Lyric Baltimore released a letter in mid-July complaining that Artscape threatened to interfere with key events they had planned.
He convened the first of eight weekly meetings that included BOPA, the mayor’s office, the heads of city services from policing to transportation, and the four institutions — meetings the cultural organizations said were instrumental in resolving many concerns.
“The progress that’s been made is remarkable,” said Chris Hart, the University of Baltimore’s communications director. “Instead of folks finding out the day of when something was going to happen, now we’re finding out enough in advance to work out any confusion that might result. We really think that this year’s Artscape might be the best ever.”
Though the expansion this year into Station North has presented obstacles for some groups, others say it’s a godsend.
“The impact won’t just last for three days, but for the 362 days in a year when there is no Artscape,” Danna said.
“When the street comes to life, it breaks down barriers and gets visitors to look beyond the things that have prevented them from coming here.
“We’ve never been able to program North Avenue this way before.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.
If you go
Artscape runs Sept. 22-24 in the Bolton Hill, Mount Vernon and Station North neighborhoods. The hours are 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Sept. 22; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sept. 23, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sept. 24. For details, go to artscape.org.