Baltimore will not have Artscape, AFRAM or the July 4th fireworks this year.
Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young announced that the city is canceling all special events with more than 250 people through Aug. 31 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I want to inform residents and visitors that the City of Baltimore will be canceling all special events through August of this year,” he said. “After consultation with our public health experts, we believe this is the best move for the health of our city and its residents.”
The decision affects some of Baltimore’s most popular summer events, including the Fourth of July Fireworks, Artscape and the Baltimore AFRAM festival, the mayor said. “Until we can see some type of downward turn [in the number of COVID-19 cases], all that is canceled.”
Might he reconsider his decision closer to the events?
“It’s always a possibility to take a second look at something, and I am open to that,” he said. “But I will also be guided by our health professionals and the data that they provide to tell is when it’s safe to do that.”
The cancellations represent a blow to the city’s economy.
The Inner Harbor Fireworks have drawn upwards of a million visitors, who stake out viewing spots all along the city’s shoreline. Another Fourth of July event called Picnic at the Top, held at the Top of the World Observation Level on Pratt Street, is also canceled.
The 39th annual Artscape festival was due to take place July 17 to 19 in the midtown area. The event, touted as the largest free arts festival in America, typically draws 350,000 people over three days and has an economic impact of $28.5 million, according to the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, which produces it.
The AFRAM Festival was scheduled to take place August 15 and 16 in Druid Hill Park.
Also canceled are numerous smaller gatherings through the city, from cultural festivals to concerts at Mount Vernon Place.
The difficulty for program planners is that large events require a long lead time to plan, since organizers have to line up vendors, performers and sponsors, and in some cases close streets to thru-traffic. Once canceled, they can’t easily be rescheduled at the last minute.
The suspension of public gatherings and events began on March 12, when Governor Larry Hogan issued an executive order stating they must be “canceled or postponed” until he lifts a state of emergency he declared on March 5. Already, the Flower Mart, Pride Weekend and HonFest have been postponed, canceled or turned into a virtual event.
In April, Hogan announced a three-phase plan to end the state’s lockdown. But lifting the ban on public gatherings is in the third and final phase, and for now the ban remains in effect.
The mayor’s announcement today was the first formal notice that Artscape, AFRAM and the Fireworks won’t take place in July or August, even if the governor lifts his restrictions.
Donna Drew Sawyer, the CEO of BOPA, said her agency consulted with the mayor’s office and that she concurs with the mayor’s decision to suspend special events.
“For all of us, the health and safety of attendees, staff, participants and volunteers is our primary concern,” she said in a statement. “The cancellation of these major events impacts so many—artists, performers and exhibitors, as well as our production staff, crew, vendors, production assistants, volunteers and neighbors. However, large gatherings of the community are not possible at this time.”
Sawyer said in a phone interview that her office doesn’t plan to reschedule Artscape for later this year but does intend to return to holding it annually starting in 2021, which will be the 40th anniversary of Artscape. Although dates have not been set, she said, it is usually in the third week of July.
Sawyer said Artscape is too large and takes too much planning to try to move it to another weekend this year.
“The amount of work it takes to put together an event like that, it would be impossible to mount that anytime this year, especially given that we have events planned for the fall,” she said. “So we’re looking to the fall to see how that’s going to go, but there’s no way we could reverse course and do Artscape this year. But we’re certainly looking forward to it for next year.”
Sawyer explained that BOPA and other organizations can only hold events if they receive permits from the city, and that limits any applicant’s ability to make unilateral decisions. The fireworks display, like Artscape, can’t legally be held in July because BOPA wouldn’t be able to get a permit for it, she said.
Hours after Young spoke, the mayor’s office put out a release saying park permits and Department of Transportation permits for special events were impacted by today’s announcement.
BOPA had not booked any big-name performers for Artscape this year because of the looming health threat.
“We kind of held back until we knew what was happening,” she said. “It was a measured approach to this year’s Artscape.”
BOPA is still working on plans to hold the Baltimore Book Festival and the Light City celebration in the fall, assuming the city and state will allow that.
Sawyer also said BOPA is taking steps to keep some aspects of Artscape alive in 2020 through virtual art exhibits and other initiatives.
For example, she said, BOPA will still recognize the winner and semi-finalists of the Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize with a $25,000 finalist award and virtual exhibit around the same time as Artscape would have been. She said judging has not been completed and more information about the Sondheim award will come out in June.
An in-person exhibit of the award winner, planned for the Walters Art Museum, won’t be held, she added.
Sawyer said the Fred Artscape Prize, named for former Maryland Institute College of Art president Fred Lazarus IV and given to recognize work by high school art students, will not be awarded this year. BOPA didn’t put out a call for entries because of the pandemic and the closure of Baltimore City public schools, but it will be held next year.
When the city schools closed, “we lost access to the students’ artwork and the application platform, so we could not continue with that particular prize,” she said. “It never came to fruition this year.”
Sawyer said the city plans to have another virtual event this summer in addition to the Sondheim exhibit, giving online exposure to local artists and performers in lieu of the three-day event.
“We are going to take the best of Artscape, which is the opportunity to introduce emerging and professional artists to audiences, taking that best piece, and that will continue,” she said. “It won’t be the Artscape we know and love. That will be back next year. But there will be elements of Artscape that we’ll be able to continue and provide more in-depth exposure on this summer.”
It’s possible that virtual programming could go beyond the three days Artscape was scheduled to take place.
“It could be a month,” Sawyer said. “We would be able to bring more talent, go in-depth with some of the artists and artwork. I think it’s an opportunity. I don’t see it as something that’s less. It’s just different.”
As for other events, Sawyer said, BOPA will continue to adapt its programming and seek alternatives such as virtual platforms in response to the health crisis, and make announcements accordingly.
Because of the pandemic, “everything is a possibility right now and an impossibility right now,” she said.
“Our goal is to eradicate this virus and get back to times when we can enjoy being together in large groups. That’s our first consideration,” she said. “The second consideration is what we can do this year. We’ll continue to assess the situation as we move through.”
Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, said he agrees that public health comes first.
“The cancellation of beloved events will understandably draw disappointment within our community, but it is essential that we all remain committed to following health and safety guidelines to protect each other and to ensure that we are moving toward a successful and complete reopening of our city,” he said.
‘”The BMA’s own public programming remains temporarily suspended, but we continue to develop new ways to connect with the community through online presentations and initiatives. This is of course a challenging moment for everyone, but I am certain that the cultural and public events that distinguish Baltimore will return in time, and with them new opportunities for engagement, enjoyment, and economic development.”
This story has been updated.