Mayor Brandon Scott and two Baltimore City Council leaders issued a joint statement Friday night that delivered a stinging rebuke to the leadership of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts and that vowed to explore “alternative options.”
The statement, which was signed by Scott, City Council President Nick J. Mosby and Eric Costello, chairman of the Ways & Means Committee, was in essence a vote of no confidence in the organization’s board of directors and chairman Brian D. Lyles, the board leader and volunteer who in January began to run BOPA’s day-to-day operations after the abrupt departure of former CEO Donna Drew Sawyer.
Coming two hours after the conclusion of the agency’s budget hearing Friday night, the statement began by expressing the city’s “deep history” of supporting the arts.
“It is actually that commitment that is driving our concern regarding the continued mismanagement of BOPA,” the statement said.
“Our trust in them as a zealous advocate for Baltimore’s arts community, responsible steward of allocated funding, and vehicle for delivering critical city funding to that community has been eroded by BOPA’s repeated inefficacy. Rather than assuaging these concerns, tonight’s presentation by BOPA’s leadership before the Ways and Means Committee intensified them and solidified their inability to deliver on their mandate.”
The statement stopped short of suggesting specific steps the council might take. But in the past, the council has threatened to not renew BOPA’s contract to mount festivals for the city when it expires on June 30, 2024.
“While we have remained hopeful and have given BOPA’s board of directors an opportunity to improve its operations and gain the trust of city leadership and residents,” the statement continued, “it became clear we should assess alternative options.”
During the tense, hourlong budget hearing, committee members grilled Lyles about his leadership of the beleaguered organization.
Committee members were unhappy that Lyles kept other BOPA board members in the dark about the organization’s controversial attempt to trademark the name “Artscape” — an effort that was beaten down earlier this year by the city solicitor’s office.
“They [BOPA board members] first learned of it was when it was reported in the media,” Costello said.
Lyles said that he wasn’t attempting to keep the trademark application secret. He said that in January, after learning of the application, he readily agreed to the mayor’s request to stop pursuing it.
“The board was discussing other issues that seemed more important,” he said. “We thought this was the past and that it was moot.”
Councilman James Torrence estimated the trademark application would have cost BOPA between $14,000 and $40,000 in legal fees during a year when the agency didn’t mount any of Baltimore’s three signature arts festivals: Artscape, the Baltimore Book Festival, and Light City.
He asked Lyles to supply documentation on the actual expenditures for the trademark application by the end of the day Monday.
Committee members also expressed their dismay that an interim CEO wasn’t appointed to run the organization until recently, and that the board is just now getting around to searching for Sawyer’s replacement. BOPA announced Thursday that Todd Yuhanick would become interim CEO beginning June 2.
“I am greatly concerned that you did not seek a permanent CEO from the beginning,” Costello said.
Sawyer resigned Jan. 10 after BOPA announced it was canceling the 2023 Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade, and a furious Scott called publicly for her removal. The mayor’s office later mounted its own parade.
Lyles acknowledged during the budget hearing that it took BOPA until mid-April to hire the headhunting firm m/Oppenheim to conduct a search for a new CEO. Lyles said that he first had to create the infrastructure to conduct a CEO search, and that included the time-consuming process of replacing staff members and trustees who had resigned.
“We know the CEO position is important, and we want to reach out far and wide to make sure we found the right candidates,” he said.
Council members also asked pointed questions about the severance Sawyer received, whether that was a decision of the full board or just the executive committee, and whether the meeting approving the severance payment was recorded. Lyles declined to disclose the amount of Sawyer’s settlement, but responded with a “yes” when Torrence asked if it was for more than $10,000 — the cutoff point for expenditures that can be made without the BOPA board’s approval.
Finally, committee members were troubled that more than half of BOPA’s board has resigned in the past five months. Lyles said that as of January, BOPA’s board had “seven or eight members” and since then, “four or five” have resigned, which he characterized as the routine turnover of longtime board members.
“We come before you with no illusions,” Lyles said.
“We know that the reputation of BOPA has been damaged and that a number of you have lost confidence in the organization. We are utterly committed to reestablishing the necessary trust. We hope that today marks a new beginning for BOPA and a new approach to collaborating with you and listening to your concerns.”
Despite the council’s displeasure with BOPA leadership, Mosby and Costello shot down a proposal that would have trimmed $1 million from the $2.7 million in city funds that BOPA is seeking for the 2023-24 fiscal year.
Costello said that the plan announced Thursday by Councilman Zeke Cohen, “would obviously have a catastrophic impact on the city’s vibrant arts community,” and added: “That suggestion...is categorically irresponsible.”
In addition to putting on festivals, BOPA also distributes about $800,000 annually in grants to artists.
Council members didn’t learn about the legal scuffle over the Artscape trademark until Wednesday, when acting City Solicitor Ebony Thompson mentioned during her agency’s budget hearing that her office had successfully opposed the attempted “misappropriation.”
After City Council members expressed shock and outrage, Cohen called for reallocating $1 million from BOPA’s budget to the Enoch Pratt Free Library for its Peer Navigators program.
The statement by Scott, Mosby and Costello attempted to reassure the arts community that they don’t intend to sever artists’ financial lifeline.
“Our concerns are simply about management and execution at BOPA,” the statement said, “and not the strength of Baltimore’s arts community. Rest assured, we remain committed to you and the preservation of arts funding.”