Artscape: A Success Story


The magic moment comes at 8:15 Friday night, when Peabo Bryson and Patti Austin kick off this year's Artscape. Tens of thousands of people are expected to crowd the Mount Royal Cultural Center. Some will climb up onto trees to get a view of the rhythm and blues singers. Others will find a perch on the top floor of a nearby parking garage.

Artscape, started in the early 1980s, just keeps getting bigger and bigger. It has grown into one of the biggest outdoor festivals in America.

Even though its annual three-day run often is marked by relentless heat and sometimes interrupted by thunderstorms, more than a million visitors sample its cornucopia of offerings. It is Baltimore's biggest free festival. It succeeds because its official and unofficial exhibits define art so broadly.

The serious side of Artscape is its formal exhibits by visual artists in the Maryland Institute buildings. They will remain on view for three weeks.

Many Artscape-goers, though, skip the formal exhibits in favor of the colorful festival in the streets, tasting a variety of ethnic foods, browsing through stands selling affordable art and crafts and listening to an endless medley of music on two outdoor stages -- anything from the Baltimore Symphony to bluegrass and Zambian pop.

If your interest lies in poetry or paper-sculpting, Artscape has it in abundance, too.

Artscape's eclectic nature has its share of critics. Some say the festival tries to do so many things that organizers don't do anything particularly well. Others gripe about Artscape's heightened commercial atmosphere -- or about its heavy emphasis on eating. Indeed, a counter-exhibit in nearby Mount Royal Tavern is called "Foodscape" -- and features 12 works of multi-media art that depict eating.

More than any other current festival, Artscape reflects Baltimore and its diversity. It offers a bit of something for all age groups and artistic preferences. Its popularity means traffic headaches, of course. So our advice to festival-goers is to head for a convenient light-rail line station and enjoy the air-conditioned ride. It stops right in the center of all the fun.

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