Artscape 2019. Photo by Tedd Henn.

Although directors of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA) say they need more time to plan a return of Artscape and other major festivals, other groups are stepping up to fill the void this year.

Historic Ships in Baltimore, a program of the Living Classrooms Foundation, is presenting Maryland Fleet Week and Flyover Baltimore, a seven-day event in September. The last one drew more than 400,000 people. One of the coordinators this year is Kathy Hornig, the former “festivals guru” at BOPA.

After a three-year hiatus, “there will be the in-person return of the Maryland Fleet Week and Flyover [Baltimore], September 7th to the 13th,” Hornig said on WJZ-TV. “We’re going to have a great time at the Inner Harbor. In addition to the ship visits and the flyover, we’re going to have a party that showcases local bands, local food and beverage. We’re going to have a…Kids’ Zone. We’re really looking to showcase the Best of Baltimore.”

On June 4, the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore is bringing back the Charles Street Promenade, a day when nearly 15 blocks of Charles Street will be closed to vehicular traffic so pedestrians can take over the thoroughfare for car-free dining, shopping and strolling. The route includes the same corridor that closed to traffic during Artscape.

Last week, the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore announced the “Baltimore by Baltimore” festival, a monthly series of events in the Inner Harbor Amphitheater at Pratt and Light streets from May 7 to Oct. 1. Organized by Waterfront Partnership events director Leanna Wetmore, the festival is designed to inspire pride in the Inner Harbor and draw people through music, food, dancers, artists and vendors.

‘Taking more time’

All of those events were announced the same month that BOPA, the quasi-public agency that has produced major events in Baltimore for five decades, revealed that it’s not planning to hold Artscape for the third year in a row and also won’t be holding Light City or the Baltimore Book Festival this year.

On April 3, Mayor Brandon Scott said he was looking forward to Artscape returning in 2022, “bigger and better” than ever.

The next day, however, BOPA said it would not hold Artscape until 2023, and that it would instead offer a preview of a reimagined Artscape this September. The agency put out a statement saying it wants to do a good job and needs more time to plan the 2023 Artscape.

“Visionary plans take time to realize,” the agency said. “So, this fall, BOPA will present a preview of the Artscape to come in 2023,” not the festival itself.

“We’re taking more time to collaborate on a bold new vision for America’s largest free festival,” BOPA said in a previous message, on April 1. “It’s a big effort and we want to do it right, so we’re taking more time.”

The Charles St. Promenade, October 2020. Photo by Ed Gunts.

By contrast, instead of “taking more time,” groups other than BOPA are taking the lead on producing Maryland Fleet Week, the Charles Street Promenade and the Baltimore by Baltimore festival.

Historic Ships in Baltimore is presenting Maryland Fleet Week and Flyover Baltimore in partnership with Sail Baltimore; the U. S. Navy; the Maryland State Department of Commerce; the City of Baltimore; Visit Baltimore; the Downtown Partnership; the Waterfront Partnership and others. Northrup Grumman Corporation is the 2022 title sponsor.

Besides the Downtown Partnership, groups working on the Charles Street Promenade include the Central Baltimore Partnership; Charles Street Development Corporation; Midtown Community Benefits District; Metro Gallery; the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy and the City of Baltimore.

Sponsors and collaborators for the Baltimore by Baltimore series include BGE; Brown Advisory, Ellin & Tucker; the Maryland Department of Commerce; PNC Bank, the Baltimore Tourism Investment District and Visit Baltimore.

CEO since 2018

Donna Drew Sawyer, the executive director of BOPA, didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview about why BOPA won’t produce Artscape this year even though the mayor wants it to come back.

BOPA is a quasi-public agency that serves as the city’s arts council, events center and film office. Sawyer, a New York native, writer, and arts administrator, became BOPA’s CEO in 2018 during the administration of former Mayor Catherine Pugh and has been involved in the cancellation of Artscapes in 2020 and 2021, as well as Light City, the Book Festival and the annual Inner Harbor Fireworks displays July 4 and New Year’s Eve.

After Pugh resigned in May 2019 amid the scandal surrounding the sale of her Healthy Holly books, Sawyer kept a low-profile during the administration of former Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, always agreeing with the mayor’s office and health department that it was too risky to hold big festivals during the COVID pandemic.

Donna Drew Sawyer, the executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, speaks at a Pigtown pig sculpture dedication event in October 2021. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Sawyer employs three marketing and communications employees on her staff – Barbara Hauck, Lauren Green and Tonya Miller Hall.

She joined BOPA in 2017 as its chief of external affairs and was its CEO for just two years of Artscape, in 2018 and 2019. Employees at the time said she made it clear that she didn’t like holding an outdoor event in the middle of July. In an interview with Baltimore Fishbowl in 2019, about a year after becoming CEO, she mused about moving Artscape to a cooler time of the year.

Before joining BOPA, Sawyer, who won’t disclose her age or salary, held senior positions in the arts and non-profits sector, including the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Arts and Science Council of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, and the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia.

She served on the arts commission in Norfolk, helped launch the Virginia Waterfront Arts Festival, and has served on art panels for the National Endowment of the Arts and on the YWCA Board of Directors. She also has held senior advertising, marketing and promotion positions with Young & Rubicam Advertising and AT&T International. Her first novel, “Provenance,” won the 2017 Maryland Writers’ Association Award for Historical Fiction.

Trip to Art Basel in Miami Beach

Last December, Sawyer traveled to Miami Beach with two other BOPA employees, Kirk Shannon-Butts and Miller Hall, to see Art Basel, the international arts festival put on by the same group that produces festivals in Hong Kong and Basel, Switzerland. Her visit was potentially the kind of trip that former Mayor William Donald Schaefer was known to take, visiting other cities to get ideas that might work in Baltimore.

BOPA’s statement about rethinking Artscape seems informed by that visit to Art Basel, with references to reimagining Artscape “in the tradition of world’s great art festivals,” drawing “art enthusiasts from around the country and the world,” and “ensuring that Baltimore becomes a world class center of artistic excellence.”

A representative for Art Basel said she wasn’t aware of a contingent from Baltimore contacting the festival’s organizers, but that it’s entirely possible they did.

One trait that sets the Art Basel events apart from most others, the representative said, is that they draw thousands of artists from more than 200 galleries on five continents, in years before the pandemic at least, and they aren’t free. The general admission ticket price for last year’s Miami Beach event was $65 per person.

Art Basel was also held mostly indoors, in air-conditioned settings such as the Miami Beach Convention Center.

Unlike most heads of agencies that work for the city, Sawyer is not selected directly by Baltimore’s mayor. Because BOPA is a quasi-public agency, its CEO is appointed by its own board, which has its own process for choosing its top executive. Because the city of Baltimore provides the largest single source of funding, the mayor has a say in the selection process but can’t unilaterally name its leader. The Baltimore Planning Commission is another agency whose director is not chosen directly by the mayor.

BOPA’s current board chair is Brian Lyles, the communications director for SeKON Enterprise Inc. He recently replaced Anana Kambon, who headed the search committee that chose Sawyer and who remains on the BOPA board. Other board members include Heidi Daniels, the vice chair; developer Michael Shecter, and PNC Bank executive Franklin N. McNeil Jr. When Sawyer was named CEO in 2018, BOPA said she was the search committee’s unanimous choice.

Listening sessions

While it makes plans for Artscape 2023, BOPA recently announced that it will hold a series of virtual “listening sessions” for local artists and arts organizations. During the pandemic, it moved its offices from 10 East Baltimore Street to 7 St. Paul Street but is still holding public meetings virtually even as other agencies return to in-person meetings.

“In spring and summer 2022, the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts will introduce a series of strategic community focus groups to engage Baltimore’s creative community,” the agency stated on Instagram. “Through these focus groups, we hope to provide a safe and equitable space for the community to share insights and learn of collaborative opportunities with Baltimore creatives, nonprofits and corporate stakeholders.”

The first session is April 27 for a full hour, from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Registration is required at bit.ly/creative-listening.

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Ed Gunts

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