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Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts executive director Bill Gilmore stepping down

Bill Gilmore is stepping down from his role as executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts.
Bill Gilmore is stepping down from his role as executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

The executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, the local arts council responsible for events like Artscape and the Baltimore Book Festival, is stepping down after nearly four decades with the organization.

Bill Gilmore, 63, announced his retirement Thursday. He said he will remain in his current post while the board launches a national search for his replacement, which could take as long as six months.

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Gilmore has spent 37 years — including about a quarter-century as executive director — with BOPA, an arts council that produces several Baltimore arts-related festivals each year, while also distributing about $2 million annually to local artists and performers in grants, awards and commissions.

Anana Kambon, president of BOPA's board of directors, said that Gilmore's tireless advocacy helped change city residents' attitude toward the arts. When Gilmore began working at BOPA, she said, the arts were often thought of as a frill — a nice addition to a major metropolitan area, but not essential.

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"Over time, Bill was able to define the arts as part of the fabric and fiber of Baltimore City," Kambon said.

"He understood that the arts help to drive the economy. He also understood that they help to uplift the city by engaging people in a way that acknowledges our differences and celebrates our similarities."

The Baltimore Book Festival responded to community pressure Tuesday by removing from its planned lineup Rachel Dolezal, the controversial former NAACP official, from its planned lineup.

Gilmore said that he decided about three weeks ago that it was time to retire.

"When you're in a position like this, there's no good time for a transition," he said. "But when I looked at the calendar, I felt there was a window of opportunity. Financially, the organization is in a good position. I have a new board chairwoman and several new board members.

"And, I want to do something else. I feel like I've paid my dues. I want to find another opportunity where I can work to move the city forward. That opportunity could be in social services, or it could be for some foundation."

During his time with BOPA, Gilmore founded the Baltimore Book Festival and originated Free Fall Baltimore, which provides dozens of free arts-related activities every October. In 2016, BOPA put on the first Light City Baltimore, an annual festival of illuminated artworks slated to return for its third year next spring.

Gilmore also was instrumental in creating the Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize. The $25,000 annual award (the idea of former BOPA staffer Gary Kachadourian) not only raised not just the level of artwork shown at the annual free outdoor arts festival, but also elevated Artscape's — and Baltimore's — reputations in the regional art world.

Kambon and Gilmore said that the timing of his retirement is unrelated to the controversy around Rachel Dolezal's now-cancelled appearance at this year's Baltimore Book Festival. On Tuesday the festival responded to community pressure by publicly rescinding their invitation to Dolezal to read from her new autobiography. Dolezal made headlines in 2015 and later resigned from the NAACP after it was revealed that she had white parents, though she had been representing herself as black. Some thought that providing a forum for Dolezal at the Book Fest would be racially insensitive.

"Oh no, no, no," Gilmore said. "Are you kidding me? We've weathered far bigger storms here than that."

For example, in October, BOPA became involved in a dispute that landed in federal court over who owned the trademarks for Light City — the arts council, or the couple who co-founded the event, Brooke and Justin Allen.

In a settlement that was reached in April, BOPA retained the trademarks and intellectual property rights, Gilmore said. Further details, such as whether the Allens received payment from the arts council, have not been disclosed.

A native of Lansing, Mich., Gilmore moved to Maryland in the late 1970s to attend graduate school at the University of Baltimore. He received his master's degree in 1980, the same year that he joined BOPA as a graphic designer.

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Ten years later, he was serving as the organization's acting executive director.

Gilmore said that the Book Festival occupies a special place in his heart. He devised the event in the late 1980s, he said, after attending a theater festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.

"I wandered into a little park and found this book festival inside tents and I thought immediately of Mount Vernon," he said.

"Our mayor, Kurt Schmoke, had just introduced his platform of making Baltimore the city that reads. At the time, book festivals weren't anywhere near as prevalent as they are now. The idea of taking books outdoors and putting them in tents was a new and scary concept."

JoAnn Fruchtman, founder of The Children's Bookstore in Roland Park, said that Gilmore combines three qualities essential for a leader: calmness during a crisis, efficiency and a sense of fun.

She vividly recalls the year in the Baltimore Book Festival's first decade when an unexpected storm hit as the festival was in progress. Rain poured through the roof of the tent, she said. Fruchtman's staff was standing in a foot of water. The book-laden tables were sinking fast and collapsing. Everyone worried that the rain would cause the electrical equipment to short-circuit.

"Bill came in and his first words were, 'How can I help you?' Fruchtman recalled. "He sent over guys with tarps and guys who helped shore up our tables. We were panicking, but Bill's attitude was, 'This isn't the end of the world. We'll deal with it.'

"It's that kind of confidence that made him the leader he was."

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