Sometime in the past year or so, the Census Bureau estimates that Washington replaced Baltimore as the biggest city in the region. But Charm City still has what it touts as “America’s Largest Free Arts Festival” — Artscape — which opens Friday at 11 a.m. and runs until the final notes of the various performances that begin at 7 p.m. Sunday.
“We’ve searched, and we can’t find any U.S. arts festival that’s bigger that doesn’t charge admission,” says Artscape Communications Director Tracy Baskerville, who works for Baltimore’s tellingly named Office of Promotion and the Arts.
This is the 31st annual edition of the festival, which originally focused on the arty institutions of Baltimore’s Mount Royal area: the Maryland Institute College of Art, the Lyric Theater and Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. It subsequently expanded to encompass what the city rather ambitiously calls the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. That neighborhood is home to the Charles Theater, Baltimore’s principal art-film house, and some artists’ studios and apartments.
Conveniently for visitors, the two districts are adjacent to each other and easily walkable from Penn Station, which is served by Amtrak, MARC and the city’s light-rail line.
Baskerville cites three special features of this year’s Artscape: Roadside Attractions, At-TENT-tion and a bicentennial commemoration of the War of 1812.
The first, billed as “the largest interactive performing/visual arts installation in the history of the festival,” will array travel-related art, music, billboards and performances along a quarter mile of Charles Street near Penn Station.
So why will it feature such governmental road-related stuff as crash-test dummies and a drunk-driving simulator?That’s because the event is sponsored by the Maryland Department of Transportation, Maryland Highway Safety Office, Motor Vehicle Administration and State Highway Administration.
Roadside Attractions will incorporate an Artscape tradition, the procession of “art cars,” ordinary automobiles decorated in outlandish, humorous and sometimes even beautiful ways. “The art cars are always a big draw,” Baskerville says. “And this year, they’ll drive on Charles Street through Roadside Attractions.”
At-TENT-tion will comprise 10 tents pitched in Pearlstone Park, a sculpture garden in the Mount Royal area. Some of these installations, the fest promises, will allow visitors to “peer inside ‘secret worlds.’ ”
To mark the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, the fest will begin each day with performances on all three outdoor stages of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” whose lyrics were inspired by the defense of Fort McHenry from British attack in Baltimore harbor. (That brawl itself won’t rate a bicentennial until 1814.) Also, the Dan Meyer Choir will perform “a light-hearted musical history lesson” about the war in four-part harmony.
Such a lesson may well be in order. Recent polls indicate that most Americans know very little about the War of 1812, including when it occurred. “This would a good year to learn about it,” suggests Baskerville. “I think we in Baltimore know a little more,” she adds, “because of Fort McHenry, the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ and Francis Scott Key.”
Key was a Washingtonian, of course, making a brief trip to Baltimore, as so many D.C. residents occasionally do. This year, Artscape will welcome more visitors from the South, and not just to roam the exhibits, ride the 70-foot-tall Big Wheel and sample the standard street-fair eats. (Haute cuisine is not one of Artscape’s arts.) They’ll also be onstage.
Artscape sponsors a contest, “Sound Off Live!,” to pick the best Charm City groups to perform at several of the fest’s stages and venues. (The fest even compiles a “Local Bands Resource Guide.”) But these acts will be supplemented this year by D.C. art-rock combo Hume and Germantown-rooted boogie-metal quartet Clutch, which headlines on Saturday.
Clutch will perform on the largest of the outdoor stages, which is, oddly, the Wells Fargo Stage. That bank just settled a lawsuit with Baltimore, agreeing to pay at least $175 million to compensate for steering African American and Latino customers toward higher-cost subprime mortgage loans.
The Wells Fargo Stage is a coincidence, not compensation, Baskerville explains. “Artscape had been sponsored by Wachovia for years, and when Wells Fargo took over Wachovia, they continued that support.”
After all, Baltimore couldn’t run the country’s largest arts fest without corporate donors. “We rely on sponsors to keep the festival free,” she says.