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Carless Culture

Artscape Organizers and Curators Cut Art Cars From This Yearís Festival

Smell of Steve Inc.

By David Morley | Posted 7/5/2006

When Conrad Bladey speaks of Artscape, heís anything but frugal with his words.

By phone and by e-mail, Bladey, a Linthicum artist who for the past 13 years has displayed his colorful "art cars" at the cityís annual arts and entertainment festival, was recently informed that the popular art cars will not be invited to exhibit this year. Bladey, who says he can think of only one instance since he started doing Artscape that his cars havenít appeared at the three-day event, says he and the other art car artists have been dealt an injustice by the festivalís organizers.

Indeed, confirms Doug Retzler, the curator of the art car portion of Artscape, the art cars will not appear this year. Retzler has opted to eliminate all gas-powered vehicles from his portion of the show. Instead, he says, he will present a show called Autoternatives: Human Mobility and Alternative Transportation Concepts, and according to an e-mail Retzler sent to City Paper, the idea is to ask people to think outside the gas guzzler. Autoternatives "focuses on human mobility and the means (other than gasoline based vehicles) we might use to move us through our lives," the e-mail explains. The exhibit will include solar-powered vehicles, hydrogen-powered vehicles, bicycle maintenance workshops, and artistsí renditions of alternative forms of transportation.

"I wanted to tilt over the apple cart and start from a completely different place this year," Retzler explains. "I wanted to change the whole premise, to look at a world beyond cars . . . how people get around. Thatís the idea." Retzler, who says he knew his idea would ruffle some feathers, is urging people to contribute two-dimensional worksódrawings on "cocktail napkins or blueprints or photos to demonstrate futuristic designs or absurd designs"ó to help him define what the show is all about.

Itís a change Retzler wanted to make when he was first tapped to spearhead the show two months ago, but it has upset art car designers like Bladey, who is incensed and wondering why the art car community wasnít informed right away that their vehicles would not be part of the show. In fact, Bladey says, the art car artistsómany of whom do not live near Baltimoreóhad submitted application forms to exhibit at Artscape months ago and had penciled the event into their calendars. Bladey says the change in the programming is tantamount to a "bait and switch" by Retzler, Artscape sponsor the American Visionary Art Museum, and Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, which organizes the festival every year.

"I am concerned that a city agency, as well as a museum supposedly dedicated to visionary art, has treated local artists so poorly," Bladey, who describes himself as a visionary artist, writes in an e-mail to City Paper. "When people apply for inclusion in an event, put their application together, including photos, many things happen. We mark our calendars, keep the day free, and can not take on other events."

Gary Kachadourian, visual arts coordinator for the Baltimore Office of Promotion, says that there was indeed a call for artists to exhibit their vehicles in the art car show, but "that didnít mean you were accepted if you applied."

"The way we approach it is that we hand it off to the Visionary Museum and they assign a curator," Kachadourian says. "Itís not a shock if a curator focuses on a more defined area of something."

Retzler, who says there was not "malicious intent" behind his move, says that not being accepted to take part in an art show is part of the art world.

"The reality is that sometimes you get in shows and sometimes you donít," he says. "I think in the present era of oil and our environmental situation itís really about time we start questioning our assumptions about Ďcar,í about how we get around. Itís a question Iím throwing out there [with this show]."

AVAM director Rebecca Hoffberger says she was surprised to hear traditional art cars would not be a part of the festivalís formal activities.

"I was really sad to hear because I just adore the art cars," she says. But she notes that even though the museum is the sponsoring organization, thereís nothing she can do to interfere with the focus of any of its curated events. She calls Retzler a "very inventive guy" and says she trusts him to do a good job with his show.

Bladey says he hopes a resolution between Artscape organizers and the art car community can be reached that would allow the visionary vehicles to appear somewhere at Artscape, and he says heís ready to ferry his fleet of half a dozen autos to Baltimore if Retzler changes his mind.

In the meantime, Bladey has a backup plan: Heís offered to host an art car show at his house, which is "only about three blocks from the North Linthicum light-rail stop."

The art cars will also be welcomed at another, smaller festival called aLtsKape that will be taking place during Artscape. This is aLtsKapeís first year, and it has agreed to make room for two dozen or so art cars along North Avenue, not far from where Artscape happens.

"[We have] provided the opportunity for Artcars to have a forum if they wish," writes Sherwin Mark, an aLtsKape organizer whose Load of Fun Studios is hosting the event. "If Artcars (apparently represented by Mr. Conrad Bladey) does not wish to afford themselves of the opportunity of our location and organization that is their choice."

Hoffberger thinks aLtsKape would be a good alternative location for the art cars this year, noting that "people park in that area to get into Artscape anyway."

Richard Tryzno Ellsberry (brother of CP contributing photographer John Ellsberry), a local arts organizer who runs the Artmobile online discussion list, says he thinks the art cars belong in Artscape because they are "the ambassador to entry-art ideas." In other words, they are a form of art that is accessible to those unfamiliar with the art world, including children.

"Artscape should maintain an ongoing commitment to keep art cars," he says, though he thinks that aLtsKape would be a good alternate venue for them this year. "If the cars are displayed on North Avenue, Iím happy with that, though some of the art car people might not agree with that."

Bladey, when presented with the idea, does not agree.

"I think thatís a sort of ghettoization," he says. "Itís not going to be the same media exposure, itís not going to be the same audience, and itís not going to be the same police protection."

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