Baltimore’s Artscape festival will remain predominately in the Bolton Hill-Midtown area when it returns in 2023, but it won’t be held in the middle of summer.
That’s the word from Donna Drew Sawyer, CEO of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA), the agency that produces the annual free festival for the city of Baltimore and is working to bring it back after a three-year hiatus.
The festival, which typically draws upwards of 350,000 people over a three-day period, was cancelled as an in-person event in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. BOPA disclosed in April that it wouldn’t hold Artscape in 2022 because its staff needed more time for planning and lining up sponsors but promised the festival would return in 2023.
Sawyer said this week that she has briefed Mayor Brandon Scott on BOPA’s plans for Artscape 2023 and is waiting for feedback from him before she shares specifics about the boundaries and other details.
But she said the festival, which is usually held in mid-July, definitely won’t be held in the middle of summer next time.
“Just stand outside for a minute,” she said during an event at the Walters Art Museum this week, when temperatures have been in the 90s. “Global warming is not a joke. Our staff was severely affected in ’19 [the last year Artscape was held] so I’m not doing that again.”
Holding Artscape in the fall, when temperatures likely won’t be as high, also will give more students of the University of Baltimore and the Maryland Institute College of Art a chance to take part because they won’t be away on summer break, she said.
“We would like for the tent to be bigger,” she said. “After talking to [University of Baltimore president] Kurt Schmoke and after talking to MICA, they want their students to be able to participate.”
During a City Council budget hearing on June 2, council member Eric Costello raised concerns that Artscape might be moved away from the Bolton Hill and Midtown areas where it has always been held.
He said the city has spent $7 million over the years on infrastructure improvements designed in large part to accommodate the festival and that it would be a waste of city funds to move the event to a different location.
Sawyer, a Bolton Hill resident who became head of BOPA in 2018, said at the hearing that she was not aware $7 million was spent to keep Artscape in midtown permanently. She said at least one of the changes made it more difficult to hold Artscape where it has been – an apparent reference to a dedicated bike lane with concrete curbs that make it impossible for vendors to set up stands along Mount Royal Avenue.
Sawyer said on June 2 that BOPA didn’t plan to move Artscape away from Midtown entirely in 2023 but acknowledged that it was looking at the possibility of expanding its footprint to include other areas such as the Station North Arts and Entertainment District.
She reiterated this week that the current plan is not for Artscape 2023 to move from the area where it has traditionally been held.
“It never was going to” move entirely, she said.
Sawyer added that planning for a sprawling festival such as Artscape means not just figuring out the boundaries but also identifying sponsors who will help pay for it within the boundaries that are selected.
“We’re working on how [to] resurrect this wonderful asset” after the shutdowns caused by the pandemic, she said. “It’s not just putting something there. It’s paying for something to be there…We have to get it right.”
Sawyer had told the council’s Ways and Means Committee on June 2 that she was exploring ways for Artscape to go beyond its traditional footprint as a way of using the festival, and the crowds it draws, to help invigorate other parts of town.
As for future years, Sawyer said, she doesn’t agree that Artscape should be held in the exact same area year after year and is open to the idea of moving Artscape to other parts of the city.
Sawyer said she thinks the arts can be an economic engine for the city and she’d like to “spread the wealth” around. She added that she can envision Artscape being held someday in the Pennsylvania Avenue Black Arts & Entertainment District in West Baltimore.
“The goal is to use the power of the arts to improve areas and then move on and continue to improve them,” she said. “If we keep having the same events in the same place every time, we’ll never be able to spread that wealth. So it may be that we expand the footprint in ‘23. It may be that we move to a different area in ‘24 or ‘25 and continue to spread that wealth throughout the city.”
The objective is “to make the arts an economic engine for the City of Baltimore,” she said. “We have a wealth of talent in the city, all over the city, not just in one specific place, and we would love to take advantage of it.”
At a second budget hearing on June 14, Sawyer assured Costello that Artscape 2023 will be held mostly in Mount Vernon and Midtown even if it expands.
“We are not leaving the Mount Vernon-Midtown area,” she said. “We will continue to present in that area. We are working diligently with our partners to make sure we have a robust presence” there.
BOPA’s decision not to hold Artscape in 2022 triggered scrutiny from the City Council because the agency was still requesting $98,000 for festivals in fiscal 2023, which began July 1. BOPA also said in April that it won’t hold the Light City festival or the Baltimore Book Festival this year.
After hearing Sawyer’s remarks in June, city council members moved to temporarily withhold $196,000 from BOPA’s fiscal 2023 budget until they got more information about its plans for Artscape 2023 and other information they requested.
Costello, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, posted on social media on June 23 that one of his accomplishments during this year’s budget process was “[W]orking toward ensuring the historical footprint of ArtScape remains in the 11th District in Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon while allowing continued expansion in Station North, through targeted cuts to BOPA’s budget.”
In the meantime, other organizations have moved to fill the void left by BOPA’s decision not to hold Artscape and Light City. The Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore launched a new monthly festival series called Baltimore by Baltimore, and Historic Ships in Baltimore and others are presenting Maryland Fleet Week & Flyover Baltimore Sept. 7 to 13, using at least two former BOPA staffers. AFRAM 2022, organized by a private producer, reportedly drew more than 200,000 people to Druid Hill Park in June.
When BOPA announced that it wouldn’t produce Artscape in 2022, Sawyer said BOPA would have a public preview in September to indicate what Artscape 2023 will like. She said this week that BOPA still plans to offer that preview, most likely in the third week of September.