Donna Drew Sawyer, CEO of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts, speaks at The Walters Art Museum. Photo by Ed Gunts.

After the agency that puts on Artscape announced last week that next year’s festival would be held Sept. 13-17, 2023, residents pointed out that the dates would overlap with Rosh Hashanah in 2023, Sept. 15-17.

Online commenters questioned whether Baltimore should use public funds to hold the city’s largest festival at the same time as one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar.

They also asked whether the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts, which oversees Artscape, considered how many people might be excluded by its choice of dates.

“Scheduling this during…the high holidays is nuts,” said Jacq Jones on Facebook.

“BOPA needs Jewish representation in decision-making positions,” said Marianne Reynolds, also on Facebook.

“This is a huge error,” City Council member Odette Ramos tweeted.

In a posting on last week, officials revealed specific dates for the 2023 festival, Sept. 13 to 17. In the process, they disclosed that it would stretch over five days rather than three. BOPA’s announcement didn’t mention the conflict with Rosh Hashanah, but others picked up on it right away.

This week, the website has been modified. It still says that Artscape will be back in September 2023. But it no longer gives specific dates, as it did before.

Donna Drew Sawyer, BOPA’s CEO since 2017, did not respond personally to Baltimore Fishbowl’s request for information about how the agency chose the 2023 dates for Artscape, whether anyone realized the conflict with Rosh Hashanah, what other dates were considered, and whether the dates posted last week could still be changed.

The agency, however, did issue a statement about the festival, indicating that it’s rethinking the dates it posted last week.

“We at The Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts (BOPA) are looking forward to sharing our plans for Artscape 2023,” the statement said. “Coordinating a multi-day festival of this scale requires a lot of moving parts. One of the most critical parts is feedback from our constituents, for which we are deeply grateful. As we prepare to unveil our plans at a press conference scheduled for October, we received comments on the potential dates for 2023 — specifically, that they conflict with the Jewish High Holiday of Rosh Hashanah.

“It is our goal that every event and program that BOPA produces is inclusive of Baltimore’s wonderfully diverse population — art is for everyone, and we want all Baltimoreans to be able to participate fully in the reimagined Artscape. In response to the concerns of our constituents, we are taking another look at the dates for the 2023 festival. We will be making our official Artscape announcement on the afternoon of October 20.

“BOPA is working diligently to put together an incredible event. To date, we have not made any public statements about our plans for Artscape. We will reveal the confirmed details on October 20, and we look forward to sharing all the Artscape excitement then.”

The 2023 edition of Artscape will be the first since 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic caused public officials to curtail large gatherings. Started in the 1980s, the festival hasn’t previously had a scheduling conflict with Rosh Hashanah because it was always held over three days in July.

In statements last spring about bringing Artscape back after a three-year hiatus, BOPA officials indicated they may move the event to September, when temperatures aren’t likely to be as high as in July.

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is one of Judaism’s holiest dates. The festival, meaning “first of the year” or “head of the year,” is a time of reflection for Jewish people. It’s celebrated with symbolic foods, prayers, synagogue services and hearing or blowing of the shofar, a traditional horn.

Rosh Hashanah begins on the first day of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, which falls in September or October. The exact date varies every year because it’s calculated on the basis of the Hebrew calendar. This year Rosh Hashanah began on Sept. 25 and ends tonight, Sept. 27.

Greater Baltimore has one of the largest concentrations of Jewish residents in the United States, with more than 100,000 people living in communities such as Pikesville, Owings Mills, Cheswolde, and Mount Washington.

BOPA is a quasi-public agency that produces Artscape with a mix of public and private funds. In recent years, the Baltimore City Council has budgeted $98,000 for festivals and other events, money from city taxpayers. Although that amount isn’t just for Artscape, officials say, a substantial portion is.

The event is one of the city’s largest, typically drawing upwards of 300,000 people over three days, and requiring resources from the city’s transportation department, police department, fire department and others.

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.