Mayor Brandon Scott has named Tonya Miller Hall to serve as the Senior Advisor for Arts & Cultural Affairs in the Mayor’s Office starting immediately. Hall (pictured fifth from the right at an October 2022 news conference about Artscape 2023) currently serves as the chief marketing and programs officer for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and The Arts. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott on Tuesday named Tonya Miller Hall to the new position of Senior Advisor for Arts & Cultural Affairs in the Mayor’s Office, effective immediately.

His appointment of Miller Hall came after the board of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and The Arts (BOPA) decided not to immediately remove Donna Drew Sawyer as its CEO, as Scott had requested on Friday.

“Given the recent turmoil and disruption within the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA), leading to instability within the arts and culture community, my unwavering support for preserving Baltimore’s vibrant cultural heritage and ensuring the success of important events such as the MLK Day Parade remains unchanged,” Scott said in a statement.

“Despite my disappointment in the board’s decision to not immediately remove Donna Drew Sawyer as CEO of the organization, I am firmly committed to ensuring the continuation of high-quality, inclusive arts and culture programming in our city.

“To that end, I am pleased to announce the appointment of Tonya Miller Hall, currently the Chief Marketing and Programs Officer of BOPA, as the Senior Advisor for Arts & Cultural Affairs in the Mayor’s Office, effective immediately. In this role, Tonya will work closely on behalf of the Mayor and City of Baltimore, with our cultural and artistic leaders to develop a fresh perspective and strategy for revitalizing our communities and harnessing Baltimore’s rich artistic talent and cultural assets to enhance the quality of life for all residents.”

Scott had written to BOPA Board President Brian Lyles on Friday saying that he has lost confidence in Sawyer’s ability to lead BOPA and carry out its mission. He warned that if the board didn’t remove Sawyer as CEO by Jan. 15 – the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. – he would not fund BOPA in fiscal year 2024, would not renew its contract with the city, and would shift its responsibilities to other city agencies that would be able to “uplift Baltimore’s arts community.”

The mayor’s appointment of Miller Hall is a sign that he is making good on his warning. It is also a setback for BOPA because Miller Hall was a high-ranking officer who had taken the lead on planning for the organization’s biggest event, Artscape 2023. Without her, BOPA is not as well-positioned to organize the Artscape festival to run from Sept. 20 to 24, 2023, as announced in October.

Back to the future

In many ways, creating a position within City Hall for a Senior Advisor for Arts and Cultural Affairs marks a return to the way former Mayor William Donald Schaefer addressed arts-related and cultural matters during his administration. Schaefer created an office called the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Art and Culture (MACAC), headed by Jody Albright and based in the Bromo Seltzer Tower, that oversaw many of the events and activities that BOPA does currently. Some members of Scott’s mayoral transition committee had advised him to follow Schaefer’s example.

BOPA, by contrast, is an independent non-profit entity that has its own governing board and serves as Baltimore’s arts council, events producer and film office under a contractual arrangement with the city, which helps fund its operation. Sawyer, who earns more than $170,000 a year, has been its CEO since July 2018; Scott became mayor in December 2020.

Sawyer and Lyles did not respond to a request for comment about Scott’s announcement and Miller Hall’s departure.

In a radio interview on Monday with Tom Hall of WYPR, Scott had indicated that he was prepared to take swift action if BOPA did not remove Sawyer as CEO by Jan. 15. He also confirmed that his office would organize the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade on Monday, after BOPA said it wouldn’t hold the event this year – a decision that triggered Scott’s call for Sawyer’s ouster as CEO.

Scott told Hall during the WYPR interview that he has attempted to work with Sawyer to get BOPA to produce festivals and events but eventually sought other ways to put on public gatherings that could help return Baltimore to a sense of “normalcy” after the shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a sense, these efforts were precursors to hiring a Senior Advisor for Arts & Cultural Affairs and running more events out of City Hall.

Scott said his office put on a new event in September without BOPA’s involvement, Charm City Live at War Memorial Plaza, to make up for the fact that Artscape, a festival that BOPA is supposed to produce for the city, at that point had not been held for three years in a row. He noted that AFRAM, another production of the mayor’s office rather than BOPA, was a success in 2022.

“AFRAM went on without a hitch” in 2022, Scott said. “We planned a new festival after they said that Artscape wasn’t happening. We had Charm City Live in lieu of Artscape to give Baltimoreans some semblance of what we call normalcy. We put on these events and, quite frankly, my office is going to put on an MLK Day parade because BOPA is not doing it. We were told by BOPA that it was not a priority. We all know, you and I know, that we can both honor Dr. King’s legacy by participating in a national day of service and celebrating him with a parade. That’s what’s going to happen.”

Scott told Hall that he asked BOPA’s board to remove Sawyer as its CEO because he has lost confidence in her ability to lead the organization and carry out its mission.

“We are dedicated to maintaining the rich cultural traditions that we have here while introducing new programming,” he said. “Unfortunately, it has become apparent that the current leadership of BOPA – not many of the staff, leadership of BOPA – is not aligned with those values, which is why I sent that letter on Friday, and which is why I myself tweeted out last night that we are going to have the parade.”

‘Too many missteps’

Artscape in particular has been a continual source of disappointment during Sawyer’s tenure, the mayor said.

“There was no Artscape last year, right? And then when Artscape was announced [for] this year, the dates conflicted with Rosh Hashanah. There have been too many missteps.”

Sawyer has drawn criticism for lack of communication in the past, with city officials and communities affected by her agency’s activities. Last fall, she instructed one of her marketing staffers to make it clear that she is not to be contacted directly by press. She darted out of her own news conference about Artscape last October while it was still going on.

“If they do not change that direction and remove her, we are prepared to cut the organization’s funding in fiscal year ’24 and transfer responsibilities to other agencies,” Scott said on Monday. “And we will not, I’ll say it again, will not renew their contract when the current one expires if they do not do what we are requesting them to do right now.”

Can they pull it off?

In naming a Senior Advisor for Arts and Cultural Affairs and organizing its own events rather than waiting for BOPA, the mayor’s office is taking the same approach as the Waterfront Partnership, the Downtown Partnership, Historic Ships in Baltimore and other groups that have staged festivals and public gatherings to help fill the void left after BOPA cancelled Artscape, the Baltimore Book Festival and Light City in 2020, 2021 and 2022.

To help draw people to the harbor’s edge, the Waterfront Partnership last year launched a monthly festival series, Baltimore by Baltimore. Dismayed by the absence of the Baltimore Book Festival, City Councilmember Odette Ramos and community leaders and merchants in Waverly have announced plans to put on their own event, the Waverly Book Festival, the last weekend in April.

A Baltimore tradition, the MLK parade is scheduled to start at noon on Jan. 16 near the intersection of Eutaw Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Can the mayor’s office put it together by next Monday, Hall asked. Had BOPA done any work at all?

Scott said that members of the We Our Us movement were already planning to gather on the federal holiday that honors King, whether BOPA organized a parade or not, and his office is building on that. According to a mayoral spokesperson, Scott plans to be in the parade.

We Our Us was formed to provide resources and promote peace while engaging African Americans — especially boys and young men — in their neighborhoods. Its messages include: “I am my brother’s keeper” and “We must stop killing each other.”

According to the We Our Us website, members plan to meet at noon on January 16 at the intersection of Eutaw Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Activities include a grocery giveaway, drug treatment support and music.

Scott said he has no worries about drawing a crowd.

“I think you know, there was a time where, in a couple of weeks’ span, I said, Hey, we’re going to get a bunch of men together and we’re going to have a march on North Avenue, and thousands of people showed up to do it,” Scott said. “That’s not going to be a problem…We’re going to get it done.”

The mayor said he plans to use the parade to help get across an anti-crime message that he tweeted on Sunday night, when he announced that the MLK parade is back on:

“There were already going to be folks out that way marching anyway, We Our Us. This is why you heard me say in my tweet that my focus in the parade is giving to be a hashtag not unfamiliar for me to be talking about: #wemuststopkillingeachother,” he said. “That’s what I’m asking everybody that comes to participate, to watch, to be there for that parade, to come to it with that in mind: Peace. How we in this city can work together to stop killing each other. “

‘The right decision’

City Councilman Eric Costello, whose district includes the parade route along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, posted a message on social media saying “I appreciate Mayor Scott coming to the right decision to hold the parade in 2023.”

Costello also wrote to Scott on Sunday, saying that he has been working with Baltimore Sheriff Samuel Cogen and others to line up traffic control and security personnel to help make the parade a success.

“There is a large contingent of residents already planning to march on Monday, January 16, at 12 p.m., along the traditional route” from MLK Jr. Boulevard and Eutaw Street southbound to MLK Jr. Boulevard and West Saratoga Street, Costello said in his letter to Scott.

“I have taken the liberty of coordinating with 1) Sheriff Sam Cogen to ensure the availability of approximately 20 Deputy Sheriffs to assist with blocking intersections to ensure pedestrian safety, and 2) the Fruit of Islam (through We Our Us) to provide additional security.”

The MLK Jr. parade “maintains historical and cultural significance to Baltimore
City and its citizens,” Costello said in his letter to Scott. “Among other things, it serves as a platform for residents from across the city and visitors to come together and celebrate our collective efforts toward progress. After 2 years without a parade given the COVID-19 pandemic, the residents of Baltimore City are ready for this parade to go forward once again.”

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