When the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts issued a brief statement Thursday announcing that the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade was being canceled for the third year in a row, it set off a string of pyrotechnics that rivaled the New Year’s Eve fireworks display.
Four days later, the cloud of smoke has not yet begun to dissipate. Adding another twist was a tweet late Sunday from Mayor Brandon Scott announcing that the parade would indeed be held on Jan. 16, “kicking off at the normal starting point.”
But nothing has been normal since last week when BOPA said the parade would not be held.
Within hours of that announcement, Democratic U.S. Rep Kweisi Mfume had issued a scathing statement, describing the cancellation as “disrespectful to ... entire communities.” Scott publicly demanded that the BOPA board fire CEO Donna Drew Sawyer by Jan. 15 — the day before the MLK holiday — or face dire financial consequences. Reports that the embattled BOPA leader had been ousted or, alternately, had submitted her resignation, swirled around city offices and social media, only to be disproved, leaving even some elected officials confused.
“Donna Sawyer has not resigned,” Brian D. Lyles, chairman of the board of the quasi-governmental agency, said in a telephone interview Sunday.
He declined to answer other questions, saying only, “This is a personnel matter.”
Sawyer, reached Sunday at her home in Baltimore, declined to comment.
The decision to cancel the parade has been almost universally condemned. What is far less clear is who actually made that decision to call off the festivities, with BOPA pointing fingers at City Hall, and vice versa.
In what it described as a “clarifying” statement, BOPA on Friday described the parade as a “mayoral event.”
“BOPA does not have the authority to, nor would we ever assume to, make unilateral decisions on mayoral events,” the statement said.
Monica Lewis, Scott’s spokeswoman, was initially quoted in local reports as saying that the decision to call off the parade was made jointly by BOPA and the mayor’s office.
Lewis said Scott’s office supported only the portion of BOPA’s announcement that encouraged Baltimoreans to honor King’s legacy by volunteering their time for service projects to improve their communities.
“The decision to cancel the parade was made without the involvement of the mayor’s office,” Lewis said.
Lewis said she doesn’t know which City Hall staffers were communicating with BOPA. But she confirmed that the events-planning agency falls under the jurisdiction of Justin Williams, the deputy mayor for community and economic development.
Reached Sunday, Williams referred questions to the mayor’s spokeswoman.
Kathy Hornig, BOPA’s former festivals director and chief operating officer, said that previous MLK Day parades provided a deeply meaningful experience for a modest sum.
The 2020 parade, she said, cost the agency about $15,000 to mount, and it also received a significant amount in donated goods and services.
“It was one of the best parades in recent memory,” said Hornig, who now is the founder and owner of Five Star Festivals, an event-planning firm. “It had an uplifting vibe, great units and a huge community turnout.”
The brouhaha was just the most recent in a series of miscommunications that have plagued BOPA for much of the past year and drawn the wrath of city officials, who derided Sawyer’s leadership.
Sawyer articulated an ambitious vision for BOPA that involved elevating local artists and using the arts to make lasting improvements in low-income neighborhoods. But she could be vague when asked to provide specifics about how she planned to implement her ideas.
This past June, the City Council’s Ways & Means Committee introduced a resolution to temporarily withhold $196,000 in city funds that were allocated to BOPA in 2022 to mount festivals that never occurred.
During two tense hearings, committee members repeatedly criticized what chairman Eric Costello described as “BOPA’s consistent lack of communication with the mayor and City Council.”
In September, the agency came under fire once again after it announced on its website that the 2023 Artscape would be held on dates in mid-September that conflicted with the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana. After several days of criticism from members of the Jewish community, the agency revised its plans and moved Artscape back by a week, bringing it into partial conflict with the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.
But until this week, Scott had publicly backed Sawyer. In October, he expressed unqualified support for BOPA’s CEO, telling The Baltimore Sun: “I confidently believe that [Sawyer] and her staff will pull off Artscape without a hitch.”
Asked about Sawyer’s seemingly costly public relations mistakes, Scott responded: “No one is perfect.”
It’s unclear whether this most recent misstep, and the resulting interagency turmoil, will interfere with plans to mount Artscape in late September.
Scott has said that if Sawyer isn’t removed by Jan. 15, he will not fund the agency this yearand will work to transition the services that BOPA provided to other city departments, which could potentially mean that a new agency would have to start planning the festival from scratch.
City funds traditionally have made up a relatively small portion of BOPA’s expenses. Before the pandemic, the city contributed roughly $2.5 million to BOPA’s $12 million operating budget, Hornig said. That money went for salaries and other personnel costs, and the staff raised the additional funds needed to mount festivals and produce events.
For Artscape alone, Hornig said, BOPA’s staff raised about $1 million annually — and it is unclear whether the agency is on track to raise the funds it will need to mount a major outdoor art festival eight months from now.
“Typically, for an event of this scale, you’d be working on a 12-month to 18 months in advance,” Hornig said. “In order to enter into good faith contracts with the artists and vendors, you need to have your financing in place six months before you open.”
Under previous administrations, eight months before Artscape, the BOPA website would list a dozen big-name sponsors. Currently, the website lists two: the Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. and the Maryland Start Arts Council. It is possible that BOPA has received additional donations not yet listed on its website. But that would be unusual, because one well-publicized donation often begets others.
“It looks like there’s still a lot of money that needs to be raised,” Hornig said.
She said that whether Sawyer remains as CEO or whether BOPA gets a new leader, it’s not inevitable that the 2023 Artscape will have to be scrapped or scaled back.
“It’s not impossible that Artscape will be held this fall,” she said. “It would be very ambitious.
“But Baltimoreans are known for pulling together when it’s needed the most to make big and important things happen for our city. Clearly now is the time to make sure that Artscape and other significant events remain part of our beloved Baltimore traditions.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Dan Belson contributed to this article.