The meaning of Artscape

Today, it's hard to imagine Baltimore without Artscape, the city's annual outdoor festival of the arts that begins Friday. In the three decades since its founding, the great gathering in the heart of midtown's arts district has become part of the warp and woof of this city's cultural fabric, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year with a multicultural mix of big-name musical acts, cutting-edge artworks and spicy foods.

It's been billed as the one time each year when people from every part of the city converge to enjoy themselves and each others' company, and it's altogether fitting that music and art are what make such a celebration possible.

It's useful to recall that Artscape was born out of a desire to heal the wounds exposed by the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King. In 1982, when the first Artscape was held, the city was still recovering from that unrest and the deep racial and class divisions it had revealed.

The people who conceived Artscape believed that the shared experience of art could bring people of different races and backgrounds together again, and in doing so restore to health a social comity that had been shattered by Baltimore's segregated past. And to a degree few could have imagined at the time, they succeeded.

But Artscape did more than help mend the social contract. It showed that Baltimore was a city that cared about the arts and the work artists do, planting the seeds of a vibrant artistic community here that has grown and flourished as a new generation of young people flocked to the city to study and practice their art.

The Maryland Institute College of Art, a sleepy provincial backwater 40 years ago, is today a world-class training ground for some of the nation's most ambitious, adventurous artists. The Peabody Conservatory, now part of the Johns Hopkins University, attracts student instrumentalists, singers, composers and conductors from all over the world.

The city supports a first-rate symphony orchestra and two world-class museums. It's probably fair to say the enthusiasm Baltimoreans have shown for all these great cultural institutions has been stoked at least in part by the successful example set by Artscape.

Artscape's role in boosting civic pride and sense of community was augmented in 2006 by the creation of the Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize, named after the late Baltimore civic leader and his wife. The $25,000 annual prize, which was awarded this year to filmmaker and photographer Matthew Porterfield, was intended to honor and encourage the city's own artists, make Artscape a magnet for high-quality entries from artists across the region and raise the city's profile as a cultural destination. In 2008, the William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund created the Baker Artist Awards, three $25,000 prizes for Baltimore-area artists similarly aimed at recognizing the wealth of creative talent in this city.

Both prizes have burnished Baltimore's reputation as a regional art Mecca. But it is the success of Artscape itself that has done more than anything else to reclaim the city's hopes for the future and reunite its people. That's the spirit you'll feel if you visit the event this weekend, and it's what has truly made it all worthwhile.