Light City link

Here at the IRC, we like it when stuff lights up, and we like things that help Baltimore. So here’s a story about something that does both. Some years ago I attended a great cocktail party put on by my friends Brooke Hall and Justin Allen, founders of What Weekly (the hip but serious e-zine that for years kept Baltimoreans aware of what was happening—both figuratively and literally) and What Works Studio. They took a few of us aside and told us about a new idea they had. They wanted to hold a huge light festival here in Baltimore. They’d seen versions of this in other cities outside the US and had a take on it could be a great fit for Baltimore. They got some feedback, which, at least from me, was: great idea but we don’t need another Grand Prix race; we need something that seems at least remotely connected to who we are as a city. A number of us thought it should also strive to have some social value beyond bringing bodies to the Inner Harbor. As it turned out, they had already been thinking about the lights mostly as a way to draw people into programming where they could learn about and consider the city in a deeper way.

Brooke and Justin went to work, and maybe a year later I heard them on David Warnock’s weekly, Baltimore’s Future on WYPR. Warnock’s foundation had given them an award for the idea and the entrepreneurial chutzpah they were showing to make it real. The idea sounded appealing to a lot of people and they’d tweaked their design to include days of panels and speakers on important issues facing the city. Soon after this, they landed the first real money to make it happen. I blinked and it was 2016: the first annual Light City festival was going to happen in Baltimore. The Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA) had gotten involved, and it looked like the logistical and planning support that would be needed would be forthcoming.

Visitors to Light City 2016 enjoying the festival.

Cover Image: Diamond by UMBC graduate, artist Mina Cheon and architect Gabe Kroiz

The rest is history. The 2016 Light City was a smashing success measured by the great outdoor exhibits, the “Light City U” (as in university) panels and speakers, and the fact that 400,000 PEOPLE(!) came to Baltimore’s waterfront to see the work of many of our best artists and hear insightful dialog on key issues. It went very, very well. Unfortunately, a tangle erupted between BOPA and the creative duo, Brooke and Justin. Whatever happened or however this gets resolved, two truths must emerge: 1) We like Light City and want to support it, and 2) if our city wants creative entrepreneurs to generate these kinds of gifts we have to do what’s necessary to make sure relationships don’t go south this way. We need to incent and reward creativity and initiative.

Some participants truly take the festival to heart.

All this said, Light City is going to happen again and that’s a great thing. An enormous amount of effort is going into it and I know the artists are excited. Light City U has become Labs@Light City and there is a stunning lineup of speakers and panelists including some of my favorites like Baltimore City Health Commissioner, Leana Wen, musician Wendell Patrick, writer D. Watkins, social entrepreneur Joe Jones, artist/performer/poet/activist Michelle Nelson, UMBC’s luminary President, Freeman Hrabowski...the list goes on. Go. Here them. See the art that lights up. Bring the whole family. Eat. Drink. You’ll be glad you did. See you there! March 31st – April 8th.

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All photos are by former IRC Director, photographer and media artist, Dan Bailey. See the rest of his album at: