Baltimore mayor appoints new arts adviser as plans for MLK Day Parade march on

Tonya Miller Hall, chief marketing and promotion officer for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, describes changes to Artscape in 2023 during a news conference at the Parkway Theatre in October 2022.

Just days before it is scheduled to kick off at noon Monday, Baltimore officials and agencies are forging ahead with plans for an MLK Day parade, as the turmoil surrounding the city’s event-planning and arts organization drove the creation of a new position in the mayor’s office and highlighted simmering grievances.

Mayor Brandon Scott on Tuesday appointed Tonya Miller Hall, the chief marketing officer for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, to be his new senior adviser for arts and cultural affairs just hours before BOPA CEO Donna Drew Sawyer handed in her resignation.


The organization’s board released a statement Tuesday evening saying that Sawyer’s resignation is effective immediately. BOPA said it will begin a search for her successor right away.

Scott said Hall will be his administration’s liaison to the arts community, working with cultural leaders “to develop a fresh perspective and strategy for revitalizing our communities and harnessing Baltimore’s rich artistic talent and cultural assets,” according to a news release.


Before going to BOPA as chief marketing and programs officer, Hall, whose appointment is effective immediately, was a presence at City Hall, where she served as the executive director of Charm TV. She could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

BOPA drew widespread criticism after the organization announced last week that Baltimore’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade would be canceled for a third year in a row. A later statement from the arts group suggested the mayor’s office made the decision to cancel the event, prompting Scott to tell BOPA’s board that he had “lost confidence” in Sawyer’s ability to lead the organization and that he would pull funding from the agency if she was not removed by Jan. 15.

The mayor then announced Sunday night on Twitter that the MLK Day parade would be happening, after all.

With Hall’s appointment, Scott may be signaling that his administration aims to take a more active role in arts promotion and city festivals long run by BOPA, such as Artscape, Light City and the Baltimore Book Festival.

“Given the recent turmoil and disruption within the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA), leading to instability within the arts and culture community, my unwavering support for preserving Baltimore’s vibrant cultural heritage and ensuring the success of important events such as the MLK Day Parade remains unchanged,” the mayor said in a statement earlier Tuesday.

Jack French, a spokesperson for the mayor, said the MLK Day parade at noon Monday will focus on Scott’s efforts to end violence in the city. Organizations promoting public safety, including Safe Streets Baltimore and We Our Us, will participate in the march, which will start at State Center and follow its traditional route down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.


The route will be secured by officers from the Baltimore Police Department, sheriff’s deputies, Baltimore City Schools police and environmental police, according to French, who said the city is also in discussions with the University of Maryland Medical Center police to provide additional support if necessary.

“It is our hope that this celebratory event will not only bring people together, but also contribute to a sense of pride and security in our city,” French wrote in an email.

A registration form for groups who want to participate in the parade is available online, but other logistical details about the last-minute parade planning have been sparse.

French did not respond to questions about how much the parade would cost or how the city will pay for it. The 2020 MLK Day parade cost about $15,000 to mount, according to Kathy Hornig, BOPA’s former festivals director and chief operating officer.

In a letter to the mayor shared on social media over the weekend, Baltimore City Councilman Eric Costello said the parade will need support from city agencies, including the Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Works, to create a maintenance of traffic plan, provide sanitation services and set up a small stage for the event.

In an email to The Baltimore Sun, Public Works spokeswoman Jennifer Combs said the department would provide street sweeping services and trash collection along the parade route before and immediately following the parade.


Representatives for the transportation department did not respond to a request for more information.

Costello also said that volunteers from the Fruit of Islam will provide additional security during the parade. The councilman, whose district includes part of the MLK Day parade route, said he started coordinating with community groups over the weekend when he realized there was a “large contingent of residents” who were planning to march on MLK Day, with or without the city’s official backing.

In an interview on WYPR’s “Midday with the Mayor” on Monday, Scott said the city decided to put on the parade “because BOPA is not doing it.”

“We were told by BOPA that it was not a priority,” he told host Tom Hall.

Asked whether he was concerned about the abbreviated time frame to mount the parade, Scott pointed to past efforts to assemble residents on short notice.

“That’s not going to be a problem, and we’re going to get it done,” he said.


The mayor also highlighted the city’s recent efforts to plan other events in the absence of BOPA’s input, citing the success of AFRAM and Charm City Live.

“As you have seen, not just with MLK Day but with Artscape, you have seen the difference in the events that the mayor’s office and the city has put on; for example, AFRAM went on without a hitch,” Scott said. “We planned a new festival after they said that Artscape wasn’t happening, and had Charm City Live in lieu of Artscape to give Baltimoreans some semblance of what we call normalcy.”

Councilwoman Odette Ramos also noted Tuesday that city officials have taken the initiative to plan alternatives to BOPA events. In her district, Ramos said, she is working with Waverly Main Street to coordinate the new Waverly Book Festival, set to take place in late April.

“We’re planning the Waverly Book Festival because we don’t think the Baltimore Book Festival is going to happen,” Ramos said. “I think eventually it’s going to be the Baltimore Book Festival, because BOPA doesn’t have the capacity.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.