ON THE SOAPBOX:

Artscape: Fab, and Not So

by Lynda Lambert
Artscape, a wonderful city tradition, needs to take itself more seriously and make itself more crowd-friendly.
       July’s Artscape marked its 20th anniversary. Born in a time when Baltimore was celebrating itself in events like the City Fair, Artscape has not only survived but prospered while other such celebrations have fallen by the wayside or lost popularity.

       It is not, therefore, a fly-by-night event. We all expect it, like the Renaissance Festival and the Maryland State Fair, to be around for a very long time.

       I have to ask myself, then, why Artscape treats itself as if it just happened. As if it were just conceived. As if it doesn’t plan to be around next year.

       Maryland State Fair has had its own fairgrounds, I believe, for more than half a century. The Renaissance Festival purchased land and built a permanent Renaissance village. But Artscape doesn’t have enough confidence in itself to even create small amenities for its visitors.

       Permanent public toilets (not to mention adequate toilet paper) would be nice, for instance. Or public water fountains, so that people without $50 to spend on drinks and hours available to wait in line could wet their whistles. (By the way: We used to have public water fountains all over the city. What happened to them?)

       The entertainment at this year’s Artscape was fantastic, as usual. Smokey Robinson and Ray Charles in one weekend! Unbelievable.

       Thousands turn out for the concerts every year. The Decker Stage is where all these big talents play. Yet those who come to see them must risk life and limb to get a seat.

       The hill that surrounds the Decker Stage is steep. It’s slippery in dry weather and muddy in wet. Chairs, strollers and people slide and fall, often spilling the contents of drinks and food plates on those in their wake.

       And even if they get a seat on the hill, the stage set-up makes viewing of these fabulous talents only possible from the front. About 300 people can claim those center perches, while the rest jockey for position in the crowd, or climb into trees or on walls or trucks or parking garages across the street, trying to get a glimpse of an idol.

       And the sound system and the sound operators.... Well, let me just say that we have plenty of professional sound men in this town and they were not in the booth this year, or in any other year in my recollection.

       It’s appalling.

       Yet, the solution to all these problems only requires that the city make a commitment to future Artscapes and other outdoor concerts at the site.

       First, the hill needs to be terraced. Stadium seats need to be cut into the grass and sheared up with railroad ties. Every 50 feet or so across the hill, there need to be steps. Nothing else needs to be done. It doesn’t need cement or anything else, just grass terraces about two feet wide and steps.

       Then the audience will have a flat place to sit, to rest strollers, to put down food and drink.

       As to the stage, it needs to be opened up. A thrust stage—or at least like a proscenium stage, downstage of the curtain—would work. People need to be able to see from the sides.

       They also need to hear from the sides. Speakers need to be set up so that they pummel not just the front crowd, but a 180 degree area.

       Artscape is terrific. It gets better every year. But it’s time to make a commitment to next year, and the next.

       I’m sure some of the more active developers and construction companies in this town would be glad to donate their time, personnel and materials for the sake of the city and Artscape.

       All the city has to do is decide that it must be done... and ask.

 


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This story was published on August 1, 2001.