Departing BOPA head Bill Gilmore reflects on Artscape, Light City

Bill Gilmore, CEO of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, will be leaving BOPA after 37 years.

Bill Gilmore says he’s really looking forward to next year’s third annual Light City festival, especially since it’s the first one where he won’t be the person in charge.

“I can’t wait to come next spring, next April, as a festivalgoer,” says Gilmore, who served his last day Friday as the head of the festival’s producer, the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, where he’s been executive director or chief executive officer for nearly three decades. “I’ll take great pride in being able to walk around with a signature cocktail, which I couldn’t do before.”

Gilmore, 63, has been with BOPA and its predecessors, the Baltimore Office of Promotion & Tourism and the Baltimore Office of Tourism, since being hired as a graphic designer in 1980. He’s headed the office since 1990; under his watch, the nonprofit, which serves as the city’s official arts council, events agency and film office, has introduced the Baltimore Book Festival, Baltimore Farmer’s Market & Bazaar and School 33 Arts Center.

In 2016, it introduced Light City, a free early-spring “festival of light, music and innovation” that in its second year brought 470,000 people to the Inner Harbor and added $44.3 million to the local economy, according to Forward Analytics, a Pennsylvania-based marketing research firm.

Gilmore and BOPA have weathered their share of storms, from doing away with such long-standing traditions as the Preakness and Thanksgiving parades to a lawsuit filed by a Roland Park couple claiming rights to the Light City brand (it was settled out of court) and disinviting onetime NAACP official Rachel Dolezal, who had for years falsely claimed she was black and recently published a memoir, from this year’s book festival.

We spoke with Gilmore twice during his last week on the job; the interviews have been edited and condensed. On Monday, BOPA’s chief operating officer, Roz Healy, will take over as acting CEO.

How has the job changed since you took over?

The job itself, believe it or not, hasn’t changed that much. It’s just so much more.

The core values of this organization were established back by [then-director of the Office of Promotion & Tourism] Sandy Hillman during the [Mayor William Donald] Schaefer administration -- what this organization stood for and why we existed and why we existed the way we did, separate from the government. The ability to maneuver quickly, raise money independently, spend that money judiciously, but independently. Creating quality-of-life programs and activity for the benefit of the city and its citizens.

That’s the core value, and that hasn’t changed. What has changed is just the economics of that, and the increase in programming and the addition of some new elements – like the film division, like the historic properties and attractions that we run. We added the Cloisters [Castle]; we added School 33; we added the Bromo Tower; we added the book festival, we added Light City.

What was there when you started?

When I took over, we were the Baltimore Office of Promotion, BOP. We had the ethnic festivals; the showcase of nations; we had the Preakness celebrations; we had the Thanksgiving parade. These are some of the things we no longer do.

If you have sort of a desperate attitude, you can’t really be in this business.

Bill Gilmore

Of the events that you’ve added, is there one that you are particularly proud of?

I do have a special place in my heart for the book festival. It was the first big festival that I founded from scratch, and I think it’s special because of what it means to the community, to have a world-class literary event right here in Baltimore.

The Preakness Parade and the Thanksgiving Parade no longer take place. Is it unfortunate that some events have gone by the wayside, or is that the natural progression?

It’s absolutely natural. Events have a life cycle. For us, we always felt like, if we couldn’t sell a sponsorship around it or get private funding, there was a reason for that.

Parades in general, around the country, unless they’re a televised parade that have a lot of commercial media behind them, they’re tough to produce. And they’re expensive to produce.

We’ve always felt like: It’s OK if something goes away. For us, as producers, we feel that way. The general public probably doesn’t feel as pragmatic about it as we are.

Bill Gilmore, CEO of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, will be leaving BOPA after 37 years. Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun

Signature events, like Artscape, like the Book Festival, like Light City -- why are they important to a city like Baltimore?

First of all, I’m a big sort-of softie about tradition. I think that people really look forward to things that happen on a regular basis. Annual events like Artscape – for many people, that’s their summer celebration, that’s their chance to see people that maybe they don’t see any other time of year, except walking down Mount Royal Avenue or Charles Street. They’re an important part of just living in the city.

And then, it’s an incredible opportunity to employ artists. Light City, the Book Festival, Artscape, we hire hundreds and hundreds of artists and performers. So it’s an economic stimulus to our arts community.

And then there’s the economic impact...when we generate sales tax and hotel tax and parking taxes.

And then there’s the national and regional and local press that they generate. You’re creating a positive image for the city all across the media spectrum.

Are we at a time now, given the events of the Uprising, given the reputation that Baltimore seems to be getting for being a violent city – are we at a low ebb as far as image?

I don’t think that we’re at the low ebb of anything. I am confident, and believe that the mayor has control, and is doing everything in her power … to address the underlying issues and the day-to-day disruption that these things cause.

You have to get up every day with a positive attitude, and a team and collaborative approach to solving these problems. They don’t just go away. This is something that you address every day.

When you hear about the negativity that’s out there, and I’m sure you hear it on all fronts, from social media, people talking, from the radio and TV – how do you react?

If you have sort of a desperate attitude, you can’t really be in this business. You’re not a good fit. You’ve got to figure out how to cope with it, and beat it.

There’s an opportunity to solve problems in creative ways. And if you’re not willing to do that, you really shouldn’t be in this business. You can’t let these things get you down.

How happy are you with the progress of Light City, and what future do you foresee for the celebration?

I’m very optimistic. I think the artistic excellence that we’ve had from the very beginning has really set the bar. I’m really pleased that, even after two years, the festival has established itself as not only North America’s largest light festival, but we’re now in that league internationally, with major festivals that have been in existence for longer than we have. And we’re beginning some collaboration internationally … with festivals in Europe and Japan and other countries.

What’s next for you?

I’m going to take some time to enjoy the holidays with family. We [Gilmore is married to Ted Frankel, who runs Sideshow, the gift shop at the American Visionary Art Museum] do have a trip planned in January to Indochina – Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. But I’m going to be looking for what’s next for me. I still have a lot to give. I want to find something that will benefit Baltimore, my fair city, in another way, that doesn’t involve working New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July.

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From left: Ted Frankel, Sideshow owner, and Bill Gilmore, Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts executive director at the 2017 Light City Baltimore festival. Local VIPs and members of Baltimore's creative community - including some of the artists who created pieces featured in Light City - took a break from touring the festival to eat, drink, dance to a DJ and mingle at a party in the Light City VIP tent at Transamerica Plaza. Sloane Brown / Baltimore Sun
Chris Kaltenbach

Chris Kaltenbach

Chris Kaltenbach, a Loyola University Maryland grad, formerly covered the arts and pop culture. His work has been honored by The Newspaper Guild, the MDDC Press Association and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. A film teacher at Harford Community College, he's a major fan of “King Kong,” the Rolling Stones and the Orioles.