Rising from the ashes of City Fair, the festival of neighborhood enthusiasm that made Baltimoreans feel better about their hometown, Artscape has been a summer tradition since the early 1980s.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of people -- last year's crowd was estimated at more than a million -- trek to the vicinity of the Maryland Institute and Lyric Theater on Mount Royal Avenue. For three days they fairly overdose on art, crafts, literature, music and food.
This year promises to be bigger than ever: Friday's free 8:15 p.m. kick-off concert brings to Baltimore none other than Aretha xTC Franklin, the Queen of Soul. (Among other big attractions: Ashford and Simpson).
One of Artscape's key ingredients of success is its ability to reflect the ethnic and cultural mosaic that is Baltimore. Although African-American artists and music are an important part of the program, the festival truly offers something for everyone. Music ranges from bluegrass, chamber music and opera to zydeco and rock'n'roll. There will be a performance by a dance company from New Zealand, while other groups will perform Japanese, Latin American and Ukrainian dances.
There are also plenty of attractions for children; visitors can even learn how to write children's stories.
Artscape's visual arts exhibits have not been without controversies. In fact, a group of artists protesting what they perceive as Artscape's heavy emphasis on eating has been arranging a counter exhibit in nearby Mount Royal Tavern for the past 10 years. This year's "Foodscape" again features multi-media art that depicts eating.
Exhibits at the festival proper will feature the work of more than 100 local and regional artists. Much of it is for sale. But this is not just a commercial undertaking; the artists' booths are also good for inspiring ideas and acquiring new skills, particularly since many artists offer classes.
Over the years, Artscape has become an important vehicle for helping emerging artists -- from painters to craft people -- to build a reputation and showcase their work to large crowds.
The weekend's cornucopia of free events means traffic headaches; finding parking spaces in nearby Bolton Hill can be tough in ordinary times. Our advice for festival goers is to take the light rail. It stops right in the center of Artscape.