The head of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts once pledged publicly to “dim the lights a little” on Baltimore’s beloved outdoor arts festivals. City residents will find out next month what that means for Artscape, a supersized extravaganza that has been the centerpiece of the city’s festival season for four decades.
When Donna Drew Sawyer, BOPA’s chief executive director, unveils the details of the 2023 Artscape at an Oct. 20 news conference, it will cap an at-times intense battle over the future of the festivals that has been fought in government offices, at public meetings and behind the scenes for the past six months.
Emotions at times have run high, because in Baltimore even something as celebratory as festivals can’t help but intersect with issues of money, race and class.
At stake isn’t merely the future of a cherished annual Baltimore tradition, but how the city uses the arts to drive economic development.
Sawyer told The Baltimore Sun she isn’t surprised that her proposed alterations have met with opposition.
“I know there will be headwinds,” she said. “There will always be some resistance to any new idea. But after time passes, you can’t imagine doing it any other way.”
At a recent public hearing, she said that in the past BOPA devoted too many resources to mounting big outdoor parties and too few to the organization’s mission to support local artists.
“During the pandemic, we realized that doing festivals the same way was not feasible in the future,” Sawyer said. “The focus for BOPA for many years has been a festivals focus. We have pivoted to an arts focus.”
If Sawyer succeeds in turning BOPA away — however slightly — from festivals, that likely will alarm Artscape’s most passionate boosters. Light City and the Baltimore Book Festival have devoted fans, but Artscape, which attracts about 350,000 visitors annually and has an estimated annual economic impact of $28.5 million, is undoubtedly the marquee attraction.
‘If it’s not broke, it doesn’t need to be fixed’
A new road map for these public celebrations has been slow to emerge. Even the few details that have trickled out have been subject to revision, which has increased the confusion and ratcheted up concerns.
For instance, over the summer BOPA announced on its website that Artscape would return Sept. 13-17, 2023 — then recently removed those dates without explanation. A news release issued Tuesday afternoon said those dates conflicted with the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashana.
“We are taking another look at the dates for the 2023 festival,” said the release, which also confirmed an Artscape announcement will be made next month.
Frustrated that no major festivals are scheduled for 2022, the Baltimore City Council is threatening financial sanctions against BOPA that conceivably could put the quasi-public agency out of business.
“I want to be very transparent,” Councilman James Torrence told Sawyer at a public hearing this summer. “BOPA must comply with every provision of the contract it signed in August of 2020. If that does not happen, I intend to make sure that the Council moves to transition [the festivals] back to the city of Baltimore. As of 2025, you will lose all services you do for the city.”
Among the major sticking points is whether Artscape will retain its traditional presence in Mount Vernon and Bolton Hill.
Sawyer has indicated that while Artscape‘s “central core” will remain in its old stamping grounds, it also will have an “expanded footprint” in communities citywide that could benefit from the financial boost.
“I almost feel slighted,” said Sharon Green Middleton, who represents the 6th City Council district on the northwest side, at the public hearing. “The focus of BOPA has always been with Artscape and putting on festivals downtown. That makes me angry, because how does that help the people living in the district I represent?”
But not everyone thinks the festivals are in need of repair. Why, they ask, is Sawyer trying to mess with success?
Since the first Artscape was held in 1982, it has reliably attracted hordes of happy, free-spending festivalgoers. Some residents plan their vacations around Artscape, while local businesses rack up a season’s worth of sales in one weekend.
“Look, if it’s not broke, it doesn’t need to be fixed. It’s that simple,” said Councilman Eric Costello, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which has introduced a resolution to withhold $196,000 in city funds from BOPA that was allocated to mount 2022 festivals that never occurred.
Costello said the city has spent $7 million in infrastructure improvements for Artscape in his district, an investment he said would be wasted if the festival relocates.
Others are concerned that BOPA no longer has a full-time festivals staff. Skeptics say that could make it difficult to organize and operate even the original, one-location model of Artscape — let alone a version occurring at multiple sites that could be miles apart.
“We have a long-established blueprint that works for this event,” Costello said. “BOPA should follow that blueprint and hold a successful Artscape next year.”
‘The festivals truly belong to the people’
Further complicating matters is a fundamental disagreement about BOPA’s mission. Sawyer believes BOPA and the festivals exist to nurture the city’s painters, writers and musicians.
“The overall objective of Artscape is to amplify the artists in our city,” she said.
But during the three decades that Kathy Hornig worked for BOPA, she believed the festivals existed to benefit city residents.
“Our purpose was to enhance the quality of life in this city,” said Hornig, who served as BOPA’s director of festivals from 2018 to 2020. “The festivals truly belong to the people of Baltimore. Everyone deserves a front-row seat to the arts.”
And yet, that wasn’t the only rationale that former Mayor Martin O’Malley provided when he established BOPA in 2002 by merging two city organizations: the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Art & Culture. He also was aiming to improve the city’s bottom line.
“These two organizations are a perfect match, because they both strive to enrich the quality of life as well as stimulate economic development for Baltimore,” he said at the time.
O’Malley spelled out his new agency’s dual purpose when he named it “The Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts.”
During that period, the nation‘s arts groups positioned themselves as revenue-generating community assets. Symphonies, theaters and museums hired market research firms to calculate everything from total jobs created to tax revenue contributions.
“Economic impact of festivals on surrounding communities,” a 2010 report was headlined. “Can you afford not to host one?”
These studies factored in tourist attendance noting that out-of-towners spent about double the money of their local counterparts.
When tourism is a goal, it makes sense to import headliners to boost a festival’s prestige.
Hornig said Artscape’s “secret sauce” involved programming the festival with equal numbers of artists from Baltimore, the region and nation.
“That was essential to our success,” she said. “In the same way you want Baltimore artists to have opportunities outside of this city, you want visiting artists to take back to their hometowns the message that Baltimore has a vibrant arts scene.”
But Sawyer has the opposite opinion. She believes Baltimore festivals should showcase homegrown heroes.
“Under past administrations, we had more outside vendors showing at Artscape than we had local artists,” Sawyer said. “The talent we have in this city isn’t second-rate to anywhere else. Our objective is to put as many individual artists from the city as we can into the mix.”
‘A rising tide lifts all boats’
Baltimore’s development policies in the early 2000s were influenced by the urban economist Richard Florida, who advised cities to develop a postindustrial economy of creative industries in science, technology and design. After O’Malley attended a presentation by Florida in 2003, he instructed city leaders to develop a creative economy for Baltimore.
Charm City was later held up as an example of a municipality that had implemented Florida’s theories successfully, alongside such thriving midsized hubs such as Minneapolis and Seattle.
But that was in 2003, before the deaths of Freddie Gray and George Floyd, before the waves of nationwide protests and before the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement altered the national dialogue.
Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto, thinks his theories worked almost too well. The cities that adopted creative class policies became wealthier on average, he said. They also became increasingly polarized.
“When a new kind of economy arises, it gives rise to enormous inequities,” Florida said. “What develops are small, concentrated areas of great advantage and great disadvantage. The social divide increases, and the middle class disappears. And, that’s really dangerous for society.”
What most city planners failed to understand, Florida said, is that the creative class isn’t generated only from the educated elite. It also arises from those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.
“The history of creatives in the U.S. is littered with immigrants and the working class,” he said, “not with Ph.D.s from Johns Hopkins.”
Using the arts to drive tourism suggests that cities thrive when money trickles down from the haves to the have-nots. Sawyer aims to take the opposite approach.
“A rising tide lifts all boats,” she said.
“Our goal,” she added, “is to use the power of the arts to improve local neighborhoods. We want to add value to the community by leaving something permanent behind, whether an outdoor sculpture or mural or cleaned-up vacant lot. In the future, you will know that Artscape was in a community because we will have left it better than it was when we arrived.”
That theory has a fancy name — “creative placemaking” — and it’s been discussed by U.S. policymakers for the past decade. Perhaps the most prominent local example is the Station North Arts District.
Over two decades, Station North has evolved from formerly blighted blocks to a cultural destination — thanks in part to the success of Artscape.
Creative placemaking’s advocates acknowledge that the strategy requires a long-term investment. Neighborhoods don’t transform overnight or following a weekend arts festival.
But Sawyer thinks that over time, small changes accumulate and achieve critical mass.
“The improvements we make will build on themselves,” she said. “If we build a little more every year, it will catch fire. We would like to be the spark that makes that happen.”