Artscape will return next year, but in September rather than the sweltering heat of July.

The largest free arts festival in the country has been missing from Baltimore’s festival lineup since 2019; it was canceled during the COVID pandemic. The return of the event, now to be held Sept. 20-24, will also include a shift in programming and an extra day, the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts announced Thursday. It will kick off with an evening gala, and also include art exhibitions, vending and other events.

BOPA also said the festival will expand to the Station North Arts District while still having programming in Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon, where it was previously held.

The announcement comes as the city has put pressure on BOPA to bring Artscape back. In April, Mayor Brandon Scott assured that the festival would return in 2022 after a two-year COVID hiatus. But shortly after, BOPA organizers said the festival would not be back until 2023.

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BOPA, a nonprofit funded by both public dollars and private donors, serves as Baltimore’s arts council and events and film office. The City Council cut nearly $200,000 from the organization’s $2.6 million budget this summer, after CEO Donna Drew Sawyer could not fully explain how BOPA spent money originally allocated for Artscape in 2020 and 2021.

Many staffers responsible for producing Artscape were either laid off or quit during its hiatus. BOPA also received fierce criticism for originally scheduling the 2023 festival during Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. The new schedule does not fully avoid conflicting with the holiday, which will begin at sundown on Sept. 24, the last day of Artscape.

The 40-year-old Artscape has grown considerably since its inception. In 2017, the festival expanded to include a live music stage near Penn Station and immersive art installations around the Maryland Institute College of Art campus.

For 2023, BOPA is partnering with local artists such as Derrick Adams to add murals and workshops to the lineup.

BOPA also hopes that the festival will begin a “fall cultural season” in Baltimore. Programming for Artscape will take place throughout the year and will include street calming efforts and vacant lot beautification.

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Baltimore Rock Opera Society’s co-founder and Executive Director Aran Keating is hopeful about the change in date.

“In July it’s just lose-your-mind heat,” he said. BROS has been known to do large-scale performances during Artscape that include elaborate props and sets.

While September’s temperatures may shelter attendees from the heat, Keating is concerned about the timing. “That’s when everybody would be opening their season … typically those weekends are packed with events or performances which may make it complicated for certain groups to perform,” he said.

Keating said that BROS was not consulted about the changes to the festival.

But Tonya Miller-Hall of BOPA said in a statement that during Artscape’s hiatus, the organization “conducted workshops and listening sessions to discover what artists in Baltimore want.”

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BOPA learned that artists want more affordable living and work spaces along with more communal gathering spaces. It’s unclear how Artscape plans to incorporate the desires into the programming.

Diamon Fisher, a Baltimore-based artist and organizer, said he is “confused” by the new terms at Artscape.

“At the artist listening session I was confused why we were there. It was like, ‘We would love to hear what you think we should do for Artscape going forward.’ I feel like they were really trying to extract ideas from us,” Fisher said. “We talked a lot about Black Baltimore natives being part of Artscape. There was really no follow through. When I tried to hold them accountable they just said they’d keep us posted and they kind of dropped the ball.”

Adams, a Baltimore native and New York-based artist, is the guest curator for the new art exhibition pavilion to be added to Artscape. The works on display will also be available for purchase, encouraging Baltimore residents to collect art for their collections during their visit.

This story will be updated.

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Emily Sullivan contributed to this story.

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