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Arts community prepares to ‘move Baltimore forward together’ as BOPA changes direction

As it emerges from the turmoil of the previous week, the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts faces the daunting challenge of moving forward in the absence of its leader.

BOPA’s five-day state of siege ended Tuesday with the resignation — effective immediately — of Donna Drew Sawyer, who had been the arts agency’s CEO since 2018.

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Brian D. Lyles, president of BOPA’s board of directors, said in a statement Tuesday night that he planned to “work directly with senior leadership to ensure daily operations are maintained as we continue our efforts on behalf of the citizens of Baltimore.”

That is likely no easy task, and not just because the board must launch a simultaneous search on short notice for Sawyer’s successor.

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BOPA, the city’s quasi-public arts council, is under pressure to resume producing the large-scale free arts festivals that were halted in early 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those festivals include Artscape, the city’s signature cultural event that typically once attracted some 350,000 visitors annually and is scheduled to resume in late September.

Kathy Hornig, BOPA’s former head of festivals and chief operating officer, has said it would be difficult to pull off an event of that magnitude unless the roughly $1 million in contributions needed to mount Artscape can be secured in the next 10 to 11 weeks.

Complicating matters further, BOPA lost a second key staff member Tuesday. Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, who had been calling for Sawyer’s resignation, appointed Tonya Miller Hall, BOPA’s chief marketing and programming officer, to join his staff.

Despite the odds, City Council member Eric Costello said Baltimore and BOPA must figure out how to pull off the outdoor arts festival this year.

“Artscape is one of the largest arts festivals in the Western hemisphere,” said Costello, who represents the Mount Vernon and Bolton Hill neighborhoods where the event traditionally has been held.

“We need to have a robust and vibrant and large-scale Artscape that celebrates the world-class artistic community we have in Baltimore,” he said. “Failure is not an option.”

‘New generation of leadership’

Tonya R. Miller Hall, the former chief marketing and promotion officer for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, describes changes to Artscape 2023 during a press conference at the Parkway Theatre last fall.

Tensions flared after BOPA posted a brief statement on its website Thursday announcing that it was cancelling the third annual Martin Luther King Day Parade for the third consecutive year.

Less than 24 hours later, Scott issued an ultimatum to BOPA’s board: remove Sawyer by Jan. 15, or risk being forced out of business.

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“I have lost confidence in Ms. Sawyer’s ability to effectively lead the organization and carry out BOPA’s mission,” Scott wrote in a letter Friday to Lyles.

Because BOPA operated independently from the city, board members are not required to follow mayoral dictates. But if Sawyer hadn’t resigned, the board realistically might have had little choice but to remove her.

In his letter, Scott warned that if the board did not act swiftly to dismiss Sawyer, he would not fund BOPA for the 2023-2024 fiscal year. The mayor’s letter also threatened to “transition the organization’s responsibilities to other city agencies who will be able to uplift Baltimore’s arts community.”

Before the pandemic, the city had contributed roughly $2.5 million annually to BOPA budgets that approached $12 million. In recent years, as fundraising dwindled during the COVID-19 pandemic, city money became about half of the agency’s annual budget.

If Scott had followed through on those threats, BOPA would have taken a huge funding hit and been left with a vastly reduced mission

Even before Tuesday’s announcement, Scott already had begun to make an end run around the arts agency. He announced that his office would mount its own MLK Day parade Monday. And he pilfered Hall, appointing her to a new position in his office — senior adviser for arts and cultural affairs in the mayor’s office — effective immediately.

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Scott told the Sun on Wednesday that Hall will serve as a direct liaison between his office and local artists, and said that he expects that she will communicate frequently with BOPA’s next CEO.

“They will work together to make sure that we’re pushing the vision for arts in Baltimore,” Scott said. “The community will also have someone directly here in my office that they can come to.”

Following Sawyer’s resignation, BOPA and the city indicated a willingness to let bygones by bygones.

“We’re happy now that we’ll be able to have a new generation of leadership,” Scott said.

“Everything that happened happened. Now it’s about how we focus on the future to make sure that the rich arts and culture that we have in this city is treated with the level of care, the level of respect and level of focus that we know it can be.”

Lyles also struck a conciliatory tone in Tuesday’s news release.

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“We are fully committed to a robust and constructive partnership with the mayor, City Council members and other community leaders,” he said.

Moving Baltimore forward together

A guitarist with the band Survival Society on stage at Artscape, the city’s signature cultural event that typically once attracted some 350,000 visitors annually and is scheduled to resume in late September.

Since its inception, BOPA has had a dual mission: promoting and supporting local artists and producing city festivals and events.

Hornig, founder of the event-planning business Five Star Festivals, suggested in a text to the Sun that perhaps those functions should be handled by separate agencies.

“Maybe it’s time to return to one organization that focuses on Baltimore’s vibrant arts community, and another organization to produce promotions and special events,” she wrote. “Either way, let’s use this pivotal moment to move Baltimore forward together.”

Jeannie Howe, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, wrote in an email that BOPA plays a critical role in maintaining the region’s cultural vibrancy.

“The arts and culture sector is intrinsic to the fabric of this city and means so much more than any one person or institution,” Howe wrote. “The GBCA looks forward to strategizing with the mayor and his team ... to support the amazing arts ecosystem that belongs to the citizens of Baltimore.”

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Sawyer joined BOPA in 2017 as the agency’s chief of external affairs. A year later, she was selected for the agency’s top job, replacing the retiring Bill Gilmore, who had shepherded BOPA since the agency was founded in 2002.

Though Sawyer led an organization contractually obligated to produce the city’s public celebrations, she occasionally gave the impression that she didn’t much like festivals.

She was quoted as saying that it was time to “dim the lights” on such popular events as Artscape and the Baltimore Book Festival, arguing that these events had wandered off course and had become more about food trucks and big musical acts than celebrating local artists.

In June, the City Council temporarily withheld $196,000 in funds that it had allocated to BOPA to produce festivals in 2022 that never took place.

And last week, BOPA described its decision to cancel the MLK Day parade as “a conscious decision to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy through a day of service rather than a parade.”

Scott and others, most notably U.S. Rep Kweisi Mfume, questioned why the city couldn’t do both.

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The mayor said that BOPA’s decision to call off the parade less than two weeks before the holiday was the final straw, “the culmination of all the things that happened” following a well-publicized string of public gaffes.

But Sawyer also was known throughout the region as a passionate advocate for local artists. When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered cultural groups statewide for up to 18 months, Sawyer and BOPA’s staff went to work, creating virtual and live performing opportunities for local artists and putting more than $500,000 into the hands of out-of-work painters, poets and musicians.

In Tuesday’s release announcing her resignation, Lyles thanked Sawyer on the board’s behalf.

“We are extremely grateful to Donna for her many contributions and leadership,” he said, “particularly in light of the extended disruption that the global pandemic caused for artists and our vital cultural institutions.”


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