Since its inception in 1982, Baltimore has never seen a summer without Artscape, the city’s annual free arts festival and the largest of its kind in the country. But this year, in the wake of Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s decision to cancel all public events of more than 250 people in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19, there will be no stages or vendors or massive crowds along Mount Royal Avenue on what is always, inevitably, the hottest weekend of the year.
The same goes for so many other events that have become synonymous with the sweltering season in Baltimore. Most residents can’t remember a time when locals didn’t gather to watch the Inner Harbor fireworks on the Fourth of July, or to celebrate the cultural contributions of African Americans at AFRAM in Druid Hill Park, or to take to the streets for the Baltimore Pride Parade or Baltimore/Washington One Caribbean Carnival.
“I always tell people who don't live in Baltimore that summers in Baltimore are the best,” says Alysha January, local blogger and founder of Discover Charm City. “The city just comes alive.”
These time-honored events have become so ingrained in who we are as a city—not to mention the immense economic impact that they have on local artists, businesses, restaurants, and hotels. Artscape alone is estimated to bring in just over $28 million. (In an effort to support those who would have participated this year, organizers with the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts will host a virtual Artscape Artists' Market August 21-30. Applications are open until July 24.)
Although social distancing measures are essential in flattening the coronavirus’s curve, it’s hard not to lament the loss of these neighborhood celebrations that bring our communities together.
“This summer will, for sure, look different without our beloved summer festivals and other gatherings,” January says. “But you know what? Baltimore always finds a way to pull through.”
As the summer reaches its peak, we turn to local artists, musicians, and business owners to hear about what they miss most:
Owner, Crust by Mack
As a kid I grew up a few blocks over from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. As the summer grew hotter, I got more and more excited because I knew Artscape was coming! It was my all-time favorite Baltimore festival because it was the first time I saw so many people of color celebrated and supported for their gifts—for producing a tangible product with their bare hands that hundreds of people flocked to buy. To me, it was a true hustler’s marketplace. And I took pride in that…As a family business, I was looking forward to the opportunity to be an official vendor at Artscape this year. My entire family was going to be part of the experience. I thought about the vendors whose businesses depend on festival season and asked myself, “What is the long-term plan for small business recovery?” I remain patient and do my best to stay positive. We are all navigating the best we know how.
What I will miss most is the music community. I love seeing other artists and catching up with them. Our local festivals are where everyone usually puts on their best shows. Since Artscape is literally in my backyard every year, this summer is sure to feel strange without it
Co-founder, The Night Brunch
I have the highest form of belief and love for this city. This is a time to respect health over wealth, but we also need leadership that can provide a brighter vision for the future. So we cancel city events until August 31—well, why didn’t they explore how to execute these events virtually or as a hybrid? Why can’t we have the fireworks show and lift spirits? [Did they consider] how many people would be happy to watch them on local news or online? Why didn’t they work with festival planners and content creators to develop a new experience, therefore allowing the opportunity for small businesses to sell art, clothing, and food virtually? We need to reopen, function with some bits of normalcy, and operate our businesses with innovation and trust.
I’d like to see the city follow up these appropriately precautionary cancellations with transparency on how they plan to get the money from the budgets of those festivals back in the pockets of its local, working-class artists and creators who would have been providing the content. Grants seem like a great opportunity for that. We are “out of sight” right now, by no choice of our own, but we cannot be “out of mind”...There are many working-class artists here who plan their year around the income from Artscape, Pride, and other summer festivals—which are a huge part of the arts economy. Professionally, it’s difficult knowing that we can no longer count on that income. Personally, I always look forward to these celebrations. They are built into my internal calendar, like any holiday. It’s going to be like a year without Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Christmas.
What I will miss most is Artscape weekend. I've thrown an Artscape after-party every year for the past six years, the last three being at Metro Gallery. My party is a chance for me to bring together a mix of artists I enjoy personally, so the crowd is mixed and always fun. The whole weekend is a chance for me to see my friends perform and get exposed to artists I haven't seen before. I rarely make it to see any of the big mainstage acts because I’m always moving around. I love it—even the heat. Last year, D. Watkins and I got to do back-to-back DJ sets and we literally turned Charles Street into one of the biggest outdoor dance parties that night. It felt like the best representation of a Baltimore night that I could think of.
Owner, Bushelers of Baltimore
Born and raised in Baltimore, I always looked forward to events [like Artscape, AFRAM, and the Fourth of July]. These are traditions that keep our city together. Without them, something will be missing. Despite everything, I think we will all find innovative ways to connect intimately with our loved ones—and maybe even create new traditions.
Owner, B. Willow
The loss of these traditions is surreal. We’re programmed to seek predictability and routine, and this pandemic has been anything but. To me, having a summer without Remfest, Artscape, etc. feels off, for sure, but humans are incredibly adaptable beings. We will adjust, we will innovate, we will come together, and we will create beauty and joy out of this. Baltimore has a knack for that—working together, supporting each other, and seeing the larger picture. I think all of us have a new appreciation for being able to experience closeness, whether it’s with people we love, in a crowd listening to live music, or at a theater watching a production. When we're finally able to experience this feeling on a regular basis again, we will all appreciate it on an entirely new level. There’s a lot of good in that.
Editor’s Note: Some of these responses have been edited for length and clarity.