Light City Baltimore festival aims to change the city's brand

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A new festival that organizers say could become Baltimore's "South by Southwest" is in the works for next year, with plans for light installations, concerts and a tech-oriented conference.

The Light City Baltimore festival is designed to help brand the city as a hub of arts and innovation, building on burgeoning tech and music scenes. It is scheduled to be held March 28 through April 3 of next year, 200 years after Baltimore introduced plans to light the streets with gas lamps.


"We want to put Baltimore on the map as a place that people think of in a completely different way," said Jamie McDonald, a leader on the event's steering committee and founder of Generosity Consulting. "We're literally not shining a light on all the good that's happening, all the transformation that's happened in Baltimore already."

The idea for Light City Baltimore has been percolating for more than a year, the brainchild of the couple that leads the marketing firm What Works Studio and publishes "What Weekly Magazine," which launched in 2010 to highlight the city's arts and culture. The firm's clients include the Downtown Partnership and Live Baltimore.


"We wanted to celebrate the interesting things we'd been seeing," said Brooke Hall, CEO of What Works Studio, who spent months approaching city leaders and community members to talk about how to make the light festival a reality. "There's something that could be done here at the intersection of art and technology that's really special and could be really unique to Baltimore."

The Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts agreed in December to organize the event through its festival division, which also runs Artscape, BOPA executive director Bill Gilmore said. The first meeting of the steering committee is scheduled for Monday.

Organizers estimate the budget at roughly $4 million, most of which will come from private sponsorship. Light City Baltimore has already drawn the support of the city's tourism arm, Visit Baltimore, which will contribute $250,000 annually.

"I think Light City Baltimore is the kind of event that could really transform how Baltimore is seen," said Visit Baltimore CEO Tom Noonan. He said the festival — proposed to be held annually — could become a signature kind of trade show for Baltimore.

The South by Southwest festival launched in 1987 in Austin, Texas, to draw wider attention to the city's music scene. It has expanded to include film and high-tech companies, drawing some 50,000 registrants.

The 18-day Vivid Sydney festival, taken on in part to boost the city's tourism figures, includes the illumination of major landmarks, such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, as well as musicians and speakers.

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"We don't want to copy them or try to replicate what they've done," said Hall, whose firm will be working on the conference. "I do think they are proof of concept of … what a festival of that magnitude can do for the city in the long-term."

The goal is to have about 20 light installations, largely around the Inner Harbor waterfront. The Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts expects to call for proposals from artists in April, said executive director Bill Gilmore. Concepts presented Thursday to the Baltimore Development Corp. showed the Washington Monument awash in colors and fountains of light springing from the Inner Harbor.


The conference would be focused on tech firms oriented toward education, medicine and sustainability, McDonald said. Music could run the gamut from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to local bands, from bigger homegrown groups such as Beach House, Future Islands or Animal Collective to a few national headliners.

No specific acts have been approached or confirmed, said Justin Allen, COO of What Works Studio. Allen, Hall's husband and a musician, moved to Baltimore in part to get involved in the scene.

Gilmore said they do not have estimates of the type of crowds they hope to draw in the first year. Artscape gets about 350,000 visitors over three days, while Vivid Sydney drew roughly 1.4 million last year.

"If you put a quality product out there, people will come," McDonald said.