Only one other time in festival history has Hampdenfest been denied an application for a special events permit.
In 2014, an extravagant celebration downtown marking the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore disrupted the Hampden street festival’s long-standing date in mid-September. Eventually, organizers moved to a new day later in the month.
“We’ve been doing this so long, the city usually calls us [to discuss dates],” said Rachel Whang, who volunteers to organize the festival each year.
So it came as a surprise when the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, which is funded by the city but run by a private board, announced last fall that Artscape would move from its usual summer timetable to the weekend of Sept. 22-24. And it was an even greater shock when the city later denied Hampdenfest’s event permit for the same weekend.
Though Artscape’s scheduling maneuver came with nearly a full year’s notice, it effectively pushed one of the city’s largest affairs into the middle of a busy season for events and street festivals like Hampdenfest. The move rippled through Baltimore’s events calendar.
Educational and cultural institutions wrote a letter to City Hall in July expressing concerns that several major events falling on the same weekend as Artscape would cause major congestion. Representatives for those institutions told The Banner that BOPA organizers have systematically addressed their concerns since the letter was delivered.
However, organizers behind Hampdenfest and neighboring Remfest have canceled their events completely, citing Artscape’s move to September as one of several contributing factors.
Artscape organizers say the cancellations are regrettable. Looking ahead to 2024, they say they’re doing everything in their power to identify a weekend with the least impact on legacy events while also giving Baltimore the best possible Artscape experience.
“There’s a competitive landscape for events in this town and we do not want to step on anybody’s toes,” said BOPA interim CEO Todd Yuhanick.
Yuhanick said the organization is reviewing a wide range of weekends for next year’s Artscape that fall between July and the first two weeks of October. BOPA officials won’t make a final decision until after the conclusion of this year’s festival, he said. In the meantime, they’re pulling 10 years of special events permits from city records for reference and have asked the universities and performance venues near the festival’s location to share their own 2024 event schedules no later than Friday.
Putting together a street festival as large as Artscape is a deeply complicated feat that requires approval and coordination from a complex network of government departments and agencies overseeing sanitation, transportation, law enforcement, emergency and fire services. Booking the entertainment, drawing the event’s footprint and soliciting vendors can often come with their own challenges.
And there can be wrenches thrown into the process, such as when Grammy-award winning singer Kelly Rowland withdrew three weeks ahead of headlining a performance at this year’s Artscape because of a dispute with organizers about what kind of backing band could accompany her.
Although Artscape has typically drawn hundreds of thousands of visitors, organizers wanted to move the event to the fall in hopes of attracting more of the city’s young people. The festival’s timetable pre-pandemic coincided with summer vacation for arts students enrolled in Maryland Institute College of Art and other area high schools, said Tonya Miller Hall, a senior arts adviser in Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration.
In order for Artscape to continue as an economic driver for the city and its businesses, organizers “need to recalibrate and refresh it for younger audiences,” Miller Hall said.
“Lots of cultural institutions are losing audiences because they haven’t adapted to the times,” she said. “That’s what we’re trying to attempt to do, to adapt to the spirit of what is happening now in 2023.”
Following a string of canceled events in 2022, BOPA leaders broadcast their plans to hold the arts festival in September and expand it from three days to five. The new dates quickly generated criticism for coinciding with the Jewish High Holiday of Rosh Hashanah.
Officials then changed the dates to Sept. 22 to 24, though Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, begins at sundown that Sunday. Those dates also overlapped with a weekend typically occupied by Hampdenfest, which has drawn crowds since 2002 with its food-eating contests, punk and indie bands, and eccentric vendors.
Hampdenfest organizers have since canceled this year’s festival, stating in a posting online that city officials denied their event permit because “they don’t have the resources to pull off Artscape and other events like ours.”
The fallout raises questions about how the city prioritizes resources and whether massive economic drivers like Artscape owe consideration to smaller legacy events.
Baltimore City’s Department of Transportation ultimately reviews all applications for special events permits. The department declined an interview request and did not respond to emailed questions about the process for approving event applications.
To be sure, volunteers behind the Hampden festival knew Artscape’s new dates might pose a problem when they learned of BOPA’s plans last year. Organizers say they slowed down the planning process but speculated Artscape 2023 might not come together as conflicts involving BOPA played out publicly in the spring and early summer.
Still, this year’s denial caught event organizers like Whang off guard.
Whang said Yuhanick, who stepped into the interim CEO role over the summer, called personally to apologize and to offer help.
“I do think as Baltimore’s premiere events division we need to be able to support other events, regardless of whether we throw them or not,” Yuhanick said. “I hope we become a resource that can expedite things for other smaller events and lend our expertise to make sure every community can have an event and we can be of support.”
The city’s opaque permitting process combined with Artscape’s fall schedule also caused problems for another neighborhood event, Remfest. The newer festival, based in Remington, previously took place in the spring, but was being planned this year for the same weekend as Rosh Hashanah.
Corey Jennings, who helps coordinate Remfest, said organizers also realized in the early summer that they’d need to reschedule in order to avoid conflicts with the Jewish holiday. They figured they couldn’t book on the same weekend as Artscape and asked the city’s permitting office about switching to the last weekend in September. But Jennings struggled to get a straight answer about whether it would be accepted and if the city had the resources for an event so close to Artscape.
“There’s no visibility in their system for knowing what other things are happening,” he said. “There’s no visibility to understand if there is a blackout date or why it’s a blackout date.”
When organizers couldn’t get a clear answer by August, Jennings said volunteers realized they no longer had the bandwidth to plan the festival within the remaining timeline and decided to pull the plug.
Whang and Jennings say they’re curious about what to expect from Artscape in 2024. In the meantime, they say they’re committed to resuming Hampdenfest and Remfest some time next year.
“It’s not like we’re throwing in the towel,” Whang said.