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Arts

As pandemic abates, agency known for planning Baltimore festivals like Artscape offers new vision. But questions remain.

Each summer for more than a decade, Baltimore artist Ernest Shaw Jr. sold his paintings from a stand at Artscape, the city’s free arts festival.

Through the years, booth fees rose from around $25 to a whopping $700. During that time, Shaw said, out-of-town vendors supplanted local ones and the art seemed to become secondary to Ferris wheels and turkey legs. He eventually made his exit.

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“Not only did I stop vending, I stopped going,” said Shaw, 52, whose larger-than-life murals of figures such as Billie Holiday adorn buildings throughout Baltimore. To avoid the traffic that clogged his Bolton Hill neighborhood, he said: “On the week of Artscape, I would leave town.”

But now that the city has announced plans for the festival to return, Shaw hopes to see some changes. The Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts, or BOPA, which coordinates Artscape and other city events, said this month that the annual art fair will be back in September 2023 with a renewed focus on the arts, an emphasis that mirrors broader changes within the organization.

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Donna Drew Sawyer, the CEO of BOPA, said the group used the pandemic break from producing events as a time to rethink its signature festivals, beginning with Artscape.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, Sawyer said, “art had taken a back seat to food trucks and all the other things that were going on.”

The event’s impact on Baltimore, she said, was “ephemeral.” Moreover, attendance declined from 2017 through 2019.

Last December, BOPA staffers traveled to Miami to attend Art Basel, one of the world’s most famous art fairs, to find inspiration. Beyond the walls of the fair, outdoor installations now draw visitors to Miami’s formerly neglected neighborhoods. That’s something Sawyer wants to see in Baltimore.

When Artscape returns, more than four years after the most recent one in July 2019, Sawyer hopes to shift the festival’s focus to the Station North Arts District, away from the Bolton Hill and Midtown-Belvedere corridor where it has been held since the 1980s. Sawyer said she wants to highlight places like Instagram hot spot Graffiti Alley and Motor House on North Avenue, home to artist studios and gallery space.

Reworking an institution like Artscape can be a controversial endeavor, said Shaw, who has heard about the group’s new plans.

“Everybody’s not going to be pleased,” he said. “Some people look forward to the festival.”

Artscape will move permanently to September, and organizers have discussed expanding the festival from just one weekend to up to five days.

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“All of this is dependent on us raising the money to make this happen,” said Sawyer, noting that Artscape relies on corporate sponsors and grant money.

The changes Sawyer has planned for Artscape reflect broader shifts at BOPA, a quasi-city agency. Through the decades, the group, which also includes the city’s film office, has faced competing responsibilities, including organizing events, awarding artist grants and managing sites such as the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower and the Cloisters Castle, a Lutherville wedding venue.

In his 2021 transition report, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott recommended the creation of an advisory board to consider “alternatives” to the agency’s current structure. A spokesman for the mayor did not respond to questions about the findings. The mayor’s office allocated a nearly $10 million budget for the arts this fiscal year, with just over $2.7 million specifically for BOPA.

“The arts council was not always the focus of BOPA,” said Sawyer, who assumed leadership of the organization in 2018. “BOPA was very festival-centric for many years. During my tenure, I wanted to have more of a balance.”

‘I feel like I was discarded’

To that end, Sawyer has overseen a number of new hires, as well as layoffs and resignations.

“There were employees with long tenures that chose not to follow the direction that I wanted to take the organization in,” Sawyer said.

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Ayo Figueroa was among them. As part of BOPA’s events staff in 2019, she coordinated spoken word performances at The Lyric theater, creating what she said was a platform for artists that would otherwise be out of reach.

“Being able to provide that opportunity was special,” said Figueroa, who grew up with the Artscape, attending as a kid with her mom, who performed with the Sankofa Dance Theater troupe.

Figueroa said she was informed in October 2020 that she’d been laid off through an emailed letter from BOPA that described it as a “difficult personnel decision.”

“I feel like I was discarded completely,” Figueroa, 34, said through tears, calling it “shocking, devastating, heartbreaking.”

Kathy Hornig, BOPA’s chief operating officer and festivals director, also left the organization. Hornig declined to be interviewed for this article, saying only that she remained “proud” of her work on the festivals.

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The layoffs and resignations at BOPA troubled Rahne Alexander, who worked as a part-time grant writer at the nonprofit from 2018 to 2020.

“They just lost a lot of talent,” Alexander said. “It did not feel like a stable organization.”

Twenty of 36 staff members were laid off or resigned from the organization in 2020, including many responsible for producing events such as Artscape. Sawyer called the cuts a necessary business decision for the nonprofit to survive the pandemic.

“The worst thing that could happen is if we weren’t here when the pandemic ended,” Sawyer said.

Arts organization or festival producer?

But the singling out of festival staff, in particular, bothered Alexander. Events like Artscape, she said, “are the things that the agency is best known for in the city.”

Most have been canceled throughout the pandemic.

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“What are they doing if they’re not doing that?” Alexander said.

It’s a question that “frustrates” Sawyer. During the pandemic, “we didn’t sit on our hands,” she said.

The agency sponsored exhibitions and studio tours and gave out artist awards.

“To say BOPA is just an events company is absolutely incorrect,” Sawyer said. “We are an arts organization, and we elevate the city through the arts.”

BOPA also runs the Farmers’ Market and Bazaar beneath the JFX, which Sawyer said “is like a mini-Artscape every week.” Starting in June, the market will extend its hours until 4 p.m. one Sunday each month. She also noted that fireworks will return to the Inner Harbor this Independence Day.

Light City, another festival managed by BOPA, is set to return in 2024, but Sawyer declined to provide a date for the next Book Festival, which has been on hold during the pandemic.

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She said that the agency could partner with Enoch Pratt Library, local bookstores or other literary organizations that could “accommodate” the Book Festival, an annual event that dates to the 1990s.

A spokeswoman for the city’s library system said in an email: “We haven’t discussed the future of the Book Festival with BOPA.”

Sawyer’s decision to pivot away from events to focus on supporting artists makes perfect sense to Carla Du Pree, executive director of the CityLit Project, which participates in the annual Book Festival.

Moving forward, Du Pree said, the Book Festival will “be different. Different does not mean worse. Different can mean so much better.”

Du Pree praised recent BOPA initiatives, such as its emergency grant program, which raised nearly $125,000 to help artists buy supplies or even groceries during the pandemic. BOPA also is charged with administering $500,000 in artist grants funded through the American Rescue Plan Act.

“A lot of people want the art but they don’t understand what it takes for the artist to live,” she said.

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Shaw said he’s been encouraged to see new faces at BOPA, including curators who are familiar with both the arts scene in Baltimore and beyond the city’s borders.

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“Baltimore really has a very rich arts culture that has flown under the radar,” said Shaw, noting that the city has been home to luminaries such as Amy Sherald, who rose to fame after painting an official White House portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama.

“I think that it’s important to give BOPA some credit for recognizing what Baltimore has, and highlighting that,” said Shaw, whose recent exhibition at Top of the World, the observation deck of the World Trade building along the Inner Harbor, was hosted by BOPA.

Some of the agency’s partners say they’re open to the idea of reworking Artscape and Baltimore’s other festivals but stressed the need for communication and transparency from Sawyer in the process.

“Evolution can be a great thing,” said Jeannie L. Howe, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, a nonprofit headquartered in Station North that supports area artists. “What I would hope is that there would be some sort of process so that it’s really transparent and incorporates a wide range of voices.”

Shaw agreed. While he welcomes the changes Sawyer plans to bring to Artscape and to BOPA as a whole, he noted that such an overhaul will require significant resources and the support of both community members and politicians alike.

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“If you want to turn Artscape into a mini-Art Basel,” he said, “you gotta have buy-in.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Mary Carole McCauley contributed to this article.

For the record

An earlier version of this article provided incorrect information about BOPA’s budget. The organization received $2.7 million from the city for fiscal year 2022. The Sun regrets the error.


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