Artscape 2019. Photo by Tedd Henn.

Producers of Baltimore’s Artscape festival are open to the idea of returning the event to July in 2024, if that’s what the community would prefer.

Todd Yuhanick, interim CEO of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA), told City Council members on Tuesday that his agency and other stakeholders have begun to think about when to hold Artscape in 2024 and haven’t ruled out a return to July, the month the festival has traditionally been held.

“All of us feel it would be very helpful to have a date and so we have begun conversations with all the stakeholders…in the corridor to identify an appropriate date,” Yuhanick said during a hearing of the council’s Ways and Means Committee. “We are exploring all dates from September to the traditional July date. So we will be back in touch.”

Yuhanick repeated after the meeting that BOPA is willing to consider any weekend from mid-July to September.

“It’s all open,” he said. “Whatever is good for the city.”

Yuhanick provided his update on the same day that organizers of two smaller festivals that have taken place in September, Hampdenfest in Hampden and Remfest in Remington, said those events will not be held this year. In both cases, festival organizers cited BOPA’s decision to shift Artscape from July to September as one of the reasons for their event to be cancelled or postponed.

“When Artscape announced that they were moving to September, it immediately sent up red flags for us as festival organizers,” representatives of Hampdenfest said on social media.

“Scheduling late summer and fall festivals has been a challenge with multiple neighborhood festivals, recent uncertainty around and shifting dates for Artscape, and newly announced festivals taking previously available weekends,” said the Remfest organizers, who promised their event would return next spring.

Yuhanick spoke in City Hall about potential dates for Artscape 2024 at roughly the same time that organizers of the other festivals disclosed their cancellations in online messages, but his remarks were not a direct response to their change in plans. They were a response to a question from Council member Eric Costello, chair of the Ways and Means Committee.

Costello’s committee had asked Yuhanick and Tonya Miller Hall, Senior Advisor of Arts and Culture in the Mayor’s Office, to give council members and the public an update on preparations for this year’s Artscape festival, which is scheduled for Sept. 22 to 24 in Midtown and the Station North Arts and Entertainment District.

This will be the first Artscape since July 2019 and the first year ever that the festival has been scheduled for September, after the school year has started. From 1982 to 2019, Artscape was held in July – a tradition that prompted some to say it always seems to take place on the hottest weekend of the year.

During the hourlong hearing this week, representatives of various city agencies, including the transportation department, public works department and police department, joined with Yuhanick and Miller Hall to give reports about plans for temporary street closings, traffic and crowd control, and other preparations for this year’s event.

Artist Jaz Erenberg takes a break from working on a mural for Artscape 2023 at Charles and 20th streets. Photo by Ed Gunts.
Artist Jaz Erenberg takes a break from working on a mural for Artscape 2023 at Charles and 20th streets. Photo by Ed Gunts.

They said rides on the state’s Central Light Rail system will be free that weekend, to encourage people to use public transportation to get to Artscape and that murals are being painted along Charles Street above North Avenue to help brighten up the corridor.

BOPA is an independent agency under contract to serve as the city’s events producer, arts council and film office. Artscape, known for many years as America’s largest free arts festival, is one of the events it is paid to produce. Miller Hall introduced herself as a “co-director” of this year’s festival, working with Yuhanick at BOPA.

‘Multitude of considerations’

Toward the end of the hearing, Costello asked Yuhanick about his progress on determining a date for Artscape 2024. Costello said he’d like to have a weekend identified “before Artscape goes off this year.” He noted that there are “a multitude of considerations that need to be taken into consideration,” including potential schedule conflicts with baseball and football games if the chosen festival dates overlap with home games.

BOPA is in the final year of its multi-year contract with the city, so this year’s festival will be its last Artscape unless its contract is renewed or extended. Its contract is due to expire on June 30, 2024. Because BOPA is the city’s current events producer, and large festivals such as Artscape take months of advance planning, Costello’s request about selecting dates for Artscape 2024 was appropriate, even if BOPA is not the producer.

One complication is that the City Council declined to provide most of the operating funds that BOPA sought for fiscal 2024, withholding more than $1.7 million out of a requested budget of $2.6 million. That left $881,752, only enough money for BOPA to operate until about Sept. 30, one week after the last day of Artscape.

Todd Yuhanick, interim CEO of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, at the organization's budget hearing with the Baltimore City Council Ways and Means Committee in June 2023. Photo by Ed Gunts.
Todd Yuhanick, interim CEO of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, at the organization’s budget hearing with the Baltimore City Council Ways and Means Committee in June 2023. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Yuhanick replaced former CEO Donna Drew Sawyer, who resigned in January after Mayor Brandon Scott said he lost confidence in her ability to lead the agency. He became BOPA’s interim CEO on June 2, and one of his chief assignments was to make the festival a success after a three-year hiatus that started with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic but extended long after many other cities resumed their festivals and major events.

Sawyer was the figure who drove the decision to move Artscape to September, from its traditional weekend in mid-July. She said she didn’t like to see her staffers working outdoors in the heat of summer and pushed for a date in September to protect them. She also personally hated hot weather, confiding to colleagues that she wanted Artscape to have the sort of air-conditioned exhibition spaces that make Art Basel Miami Beach so tolerable even though it’s in south Florida.

Sawyer initially announced that Artscape 2023 would be held from Sept. 13 to 17 but changed the dates after members of Baltimore’s Jewish community objected that that weekend would overlap with the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. She and Scott announced the final dates during a press event at the Parkway Theatre last October, effectively locking them in for 2023.

Concerns raised

Since then, various community groups and organizations have raised concerns about Sawyer’s decision to move Artscape to September and the potentially negative impact it could have on other events scheduled for the same weekend. In July, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Lyric Baltimore, the University of Baltimore and the Maryland Institute College of Art drafted a letter describing what they considered a lack of communication between BOPA and local arts organizations regarding planning for this year’s event, with less than two months to go. 

Organizers of smaller local festivals have also warned that Artscape’s move to September would make it difficult for them to succeed if the city services they rely on, from police protection to traffic control to sanitation, are diverted to Artscape. They said July was a better month for Artscape because it didn’t conflict with the neighborhood festivals that take place in the fall, such as the Pigtown Festival and Hampdenfest.

In their announcement that Remfest will not take place this September, as it did last year, organizers said the event would return in May, the month it was held before the COVID-19 pandemic. They said exact dates and other details will be announced this fall.

In their Facebook post about cancelling Hampdenfest, the organizers of that festival went into more detail about Artscape’s impact on their event. They said city officials declined to approve their application because the date they requested, Sept. 23, conflicted with Artscape’s dates.

Here is what they wrote:

“As the organizers of Hampdenfest we’re very disappointed to have to announce that there will be no Hampdenfest 2023. Our application was declined, with Baltimore city asking us to change the date. We have spent hours working on this, but unfortunately there is no viable second date available for us this year.

When Artscape announced that they were moving to September, it immediately sent up red flags for us as festival organizers. September is historically a very busy neighborhood festival season. On top of that, with an extra holiday falling on a weekend, it rendering several weekends unusable right off the bat.

Our target date was always September 23. So after BOPA appeared to have a couple misfires in its early planning stages of Artscape, we decided instead of cancelling our festival earlier, we’d wait and see if Artscape was actually going to happen. As we considered moving forward with the planning, several city officials signaled their encouragement for our festival to take place on our intended date, so we proceeded. We figured, if Artscape did happen, maybe we could still pull off a smaller, more stripped down version of Hampdenfest.

Unfortunately, Baltimore City said they don’t have the resources to pull off Artscape and other events like ours.

We completely appreciate that city services are stressed. Putting on a festival is a constant nail-biting endeavor. We don’t want to add to everyone’s stress, as well as our own stress as organizers, by fighting an uphill battle.

We understand this may disappoint many, and it also, regrettably, has a direct negative impact on many local small businesses. So just to reiterate, we have worked through all the possible alternatives – and not of them will work for us. Unlike Artscape, we have been in communication and coordination this year (as in previous years) with other area festivals to not overlook them.

Finally, at this point we’d like to remind everyone that while sponsored by the Hampden Village Merchants Association and the Hampden Community Council, Hampdenfest is organized and operated exclusively by volunteers and supported by local small businesses. We are not funded or run in any way by local government or grants.

We thank you all for your interest in Hampdenfest. And we’re very sorry.

‘Walk and chew gum’

At an Aug. 7 press event held to announce the headliners and other highlights of Artscape 2023, Mayor Scott said he believes that Baltimore is capable of holding two major events at the same time.

“We had 300,000 people at Druid Hill Park for AFRAM and we didn’t have any incidents. We continuously have large-scale events in Baltimore,” he said. “We just had two weekend series at Oriole Park…This is what we do. Put on these kinds of events.”

Scott said he wants Baltimore to be known as a city that can hold more than one big event simultaneously.

“We are a major city,” he said. “Major cities are going to have multiple events at the same time, consistently, right? We’ve heard some folks say I can’t believe the city is going to have a festival on Pratt Street, Charm City Live, the same time that a baseball game is going. Well we did that last year with the Maryland Cycling Classic, right, and no one even knew because that’s what major cities do. You put on big events. You plan and make sure that these events go off the right way. We’re going be talking with our partners up and through the festival, but we’re going to do this because this is what we do — making sure that Baltimore becomes a city where we can actually have multiple big events during the same weekend, so that people can enjoy what they want to enjoy.

“If football is for you, go to the game on Sunday,” he said. “I know I’ll be at the game on Sunday, right? But if you want to do something else on Sunday, if you want to go to Artscape, if you want to go to a show, if you want to see something else, go do that. Major cities can do all of those things at the same time. Walk and chew gum, as my grandmother would say.” 

‘A bit of a panic’

But on social media and elsewhere, commenters expressed disappointment with the city for not being able to do more, and with BOPA for making a move that negatively affected smaller events.

“It’s getting pretty frustrating that the city doesn’t have or doesn’t think they have the capacity to support a large event and a smaller one at the same time,” one commenter said. “Last year they threatened to pull the permit for the Mayor’s Christmas Parade in Hampden because there was a football game.” 

Some commenters said they never had a problem with Artscape in July and didn’t think it needed to move. They said they thought the city should have deferred to the event that had the date first.

“Seems like your event should be grandfathered in at this point,” one man wrote about Hampdenfest.

“What a loss,” said another.

Kim Lane, executive director of Pigtown Main Street, which puts on the Pigtown Festival every fall, said Artscape’s move to September caused her to worry about her event.

“The Pigtown Festival Committee and our organizers went into a bit of a panic when Artscape was moved to September,” she said in an email. “We are in our 21st year of the festival. It’s critical for Pigtown; over 5,000 people attend. So many neighborhood traditions are scheduled in September for years. It feels like there is no consideration for neighborhood, vendors, musicians and others that are needed to make festivals successful.“

Lane questioned whether September was the best month for Artscape, in terms of lining up vendors and other participants.

“Considering that Artscape has not reached capacity for vendors nearly a month out from the festival, this may not be a good time for them either,” she said. “Pigtown Festival is September 30 and we have over 70 vendors ready to go. We’ve reached capacity a month ago.”

Artscape organizers say they have received more than 1,100 applications from artists, performers, vendors and others who want to take part in their event, and they are delighted with the range and talent of people who have expressed interest.

More information about Artscape is available at and @promoandarts. Yuhanick told council members that an interactive online map, featuring details about all of the scheduled performances and other activities, will go live on Sept. 1.

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

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