(Center) Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and Donna Drew Sawyer, then-CEO of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts, stand with supporters of Artscape. Tonya Miller Hall (pictured fifth from the right), one of Sawyer's former lieutenants at BOPA, was later named to fill a new role in City Hall, Senior Advisor for Arts & Cultural Affairs. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Local arts advocates are questioning whether the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA) is the appropriate agency to serve as the city’s official arts council, with responsibility for stewardship and conservation of the city’s valuable collection of historic and contemporary art.

Mayor Brandon Scott in January expressed lack of confidence in the leadership of former BOPA CEO Donna Drew Sawyer and called for her resignation, which he got.

The advocates, a group that calls itself Friends of Public Art, or FOPA for short, are questioning whether BOPA is the right entity to be in charge of making decisions about Baltimore’s vast public art inventory, or commissioning future works of public art in the city.

They suggest that relying on BOPA, a quasi-public agency that’s not a direct branch of city government, makes no sense and essentially leaves Baltimore without a true arts council.

Furthermore, they say the combination of “promotion” and “the arts” in one agency is a questionable marriage that belittles the role of art and culture in Baltimore. They suggest that the city “untangle” promotion and the arts and explore other organizational structures for a full-fledged arts council — preferably one that is part of city government and not a quasi-public agency under contract with the city.

Finally, they say the city needs to be stricter about enforcing its Percent for Art ordinance, which requires that a portion of the construction budget for city buildings and infrastructure be used to create public art or to conserve existing works of city-owned art. They say the city has been lax about monitoring adherence to the Percent for Arts ordinance and has missed opportunities to enrich the landscape as a result.

“I think that there’s a question of whether it was a good idea to put promotion and the arts together in an agency, in a quasi-public agency, in the first place,” said Baltimore sculptor Mary Ann Mears, one of the members of Friends of Public Art, during a recent meeting of Baltimore’s Public Art Commission. “Boston did that and they pulled them back apart in 2014. So that’s one thing that should be on the table for the arts community to take into consideration.”

Another issue, Mears said, “is that Baltimore has never had a true arts council…We’ve never had a real arts council.”

A real arts council, she said, “is a city arts agency funded by a city government and it’s what every other city has and it’s what our arts community really deserves. Whether or not festivals and Artscape-sorts of things belong under an arts council or under a promotion agency, it’s a question… I would say the history of BOPA is that it has gone to one extreme or the other, and that’s a serious problem.”

Even though it’s mandated by the city’s Percent for Arts ordinance, funding for new works of art and conservation of existing public art has been an issue because BOPA is not a city agency, Mears said.

“In terms of our view, there has been a real problem with the ordinance, which does provide for conservation funding through the capital budget,” she said. “That has not been enforced. We’ve been in conversations with the Comptroller about that, and again, I think that BOPA being outside of city government has been a real hurdle, a real barrier. And the way I see it, BOPA has been pushing a boulder uphill because they’re not a city agency.”

Mears, who is married to longtime Abell Foundation president Robert C. Embry Jr., wrote a letter to Scott earlier this year asking him to use the change in leadership at BOPA – a change that he instigated — to take a fresh look at how the city supports the arts and local artists.

She told the art commission that she believes there is a strong desire on the part of Baltimore’s arts community to come together and have “an inclusive conversation” about “what the priorities of the city should be in the arts, how the city should be serving its fantastic arts community, and to do it in a way that is inclusive and is responsive to all the corners of our city.”

Mears is one of three “Friends of Public Art” representatives who outlined their concerns to members of the Public Art Commission, a citizens board that reviews proposals for new works of public art in the city and conservation of existing works of art.

She appeared via Zoom along with Linda De Palma, a local sculptor, and Cindy Kelly, an art historian and author of a seminal book about Baltimore’s outdoor public sculpture, “Outdoor Sculpture in Baltimore: A Historical Guide to Public Art in the Monumental City.”

Mears said after the meeting that her letter to the mayor represented her personal views, but De Palma and Kelly said they agree with the points she made and echoed them in their meeting with the art commission.  They say they aren’t questioning the role or value of the Public Art Commission, which is part of city government but not set up to serve as the city’s arts council.

‘Missing pieces’

Baltimore contains hundreds of works of city-owned art, both indoors and outdoors, contemporary works such as the abstract Mark di Suvero sculpture near the World Trade Center, and historic pieces such as the Antoine-Louis Barye bronzes in Mount Vernon Place. Many of the so-called contemporary pieces date from the 1970s, a period when Baltimore required that new schools, fire stations and other civic structures incorporate works of public art.

Kelly said she is concerned that Baltimore is failing to conserve works of public art that need repair and periodic maintenance. She said the city is losing valuable works of art because they don’t receive adequate oversight and protection.

Kelly said she was hired by Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) to survey the city’s inventory of outdoor sculpture in 1991 and she surveyed it in 2009 for her book and again in 2014. 

Between the 1991 survey and the 2014 survey, she said, many pieces were lost for a variety of reasons, from damage to neglect to removal, accidental or otherwise.

“The number of missing pieces grew exponentially, unexplained,” she said. “We finally convinced BOPA they should survey the indoor pieces because I was only surveying the outdoor pieces, and they did. It was somewhat incomplete, but we were able to document, using the inflation calculator…$1.7 million worth of lost art, indoors and outdoors, and that is taxpayer money. So it just has become increasingly obvious to us over the years that the city must start taking care of its artwork….We are losing pieces just from disintegration, just from paying no attention.” 

Kelly said one of the biggest problems today is that many of the city’s works of art aren’t marked with any signs or labels, and if they become damaged or vandalized no one knows whom to contact. 

“That’s one of the most important things,” she said. “It might not seem so, but just to have a sign that gives the title of the piece, the artist’s name, the year it was commissioned, what the material is and who to call if there’s a problem with the piece,” can make a difference.

Without on-site documentation of the art, “it becomes a problem for the schools and the community health centers and the fire stations, because they don’t know who to call; they don’t know what to do about it. And so, well-meaningly, they repaint it and half the work out there doesn’t look like it did when it was installed.”

Kelly said conservation of public art is important because “it represents our city. It’s part of the cultural landscape.” The art work at public schools is especially critical to protect, she said, because “in many cases it’s the first, if not the only, introduction to art that a student has.”

Strategic thinking

The FOPA members were invited to address the Public Art Commission by Alma Roberts, an artist on the panel. Roberts told the commission she was aware of FOPA’s concerns and the letter that Mears wrote to Scott about the state of the arts in Baltimore, pegged to Sawyer’s resignation.

Donna Drew Sawyer, former CEO of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, speaks at an October 2022 announcement about Artscape 2023. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Roberts said she agrees with Mears that the transition period between Sawyer’s resignation in mid-January and the appointment of a new CEO for BOPA, which hasn’t happened yet, is an ideal time for Scott and the local arts community to evaluate how the system works and whether it’s the best Baltimore can do, and she wanted the art commission to be part of the conversation.

“Is the Public Art Commission in the right place, being under BOPA?” Roberts asked the other panel members. “Let’s use this interim period to do some strategic thinking…This is the time to reflect on goals and objectives.”  

According to its website, BOPA is 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that serves as the arts council, events producer and film office for the City of Baltimore. In addition to organizing almost every fun, free city-wide event, BOPA uplifts Baltimore’s creative community through funding and support to artists, arts programs and organizations across the City. BOPA is the primary advocate for the arts within the City of Baltimore and BOPA’s annual economic impact for special events and festivals is $111.1 million.”

As Baltimore City’s arts council, the website states, “The Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Art provides resources and opportunities to artists and artist organizations to continue to make Baltimore a city for the arts.”

According to the Mayor’s Office, the city of Baltimore has a contract to work with BOPA until June 30, 2024. The City of Baltimore is the primary source of funding for BOPA’s operations, allocating roughly $2.6 million a year.

As part of its contract with the city, BOPA provides staff support for the Public Art Commission, a city review board that meets monthly and is somewhat comparable to CHAP, except that it reviews projects involving public art rather than buildings. The Public Art Commission also makes decisions about whether to ‘deaccession’ certain works of public art, just as CHAP considers requests to permit demolition of buildings protected by landmark status.

Lost confidence

After initially expressing support for Sawyer as CEO of BOPA when he became mayor in 2020, Scott changed his mind last fall and called for her resignation, saying he had lost confidence in her ability to lead the agency.

BOPA has drawn heavy criticism in recent years for failing to fulfill its mission as the city’s events producer. It hasn’t put on an Artscape festival, book festival or Light City festival since 2019.  The City Council’s Ways and Means Committee was so displeased with Sawyer and BOPA last June that it withheld $196,000 from its budget for fiscal 2023 until council members got more information about its operations. That money has never been restored.

One of the last straws came in January when Sawyer said she didn’t plan to put on a Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade in January, a decision that was blasted by U. S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, former Mayor Sheila Dixon and others.

Scott couldn’t legally fire Sawyer because she headed an agency outside of city government – one of the issues Mears brings up — but he could put pressure on BOPA’s board because the city provides the bulk of its operating funds.

Scott responded to Sawyer’s MLK parade decision by saying he wanted her gone by Jan. 15, King’s birthday. He said the Mayor’s Office would put on the parade, which it did successfully, and he hired one of her lieutenants, Tonya Miller Hall, to fill a new position at City Hall, Senior Advisor for Arts & Cultural Affairs. His pressure worked: Sawyer’s resignation was announced on Jan. 10.

No new CEO

Three months after Sawyer’s resignation, BOPA still hasn’t named an interim leader. Brian Lyles, the Director of Development for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company and chair of BOPA’s board, said he is running BOPA for now, without pay, and “the search process has begun” for Sawyer’s replacement.

Lyles said last month that BOPA’s board was planning to form a committee and hire a search firm to assist in its work.  He said he didn’t know if BOPA will change its name to Create Baltimore, a suggestion floated when Sawyer was CEO.

Asked about Mears’ comments, Lyles said he had not read her letter to Scott but had heard about it. He said he hopes that BOPA’s relationship with the city will continue:

“I would just say that we would hope we’re going to be continuing to do everything that we’ve been doing in the past, including administering the Public Art Commission,” he said.

‘Meeting with everyone’

Tonya Miller Hall speaks at an event supporting Artscape. Miller Hall was later named to fill a new role in City Hall, Senior Advisor for Arts & Cultural Affairs. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Miller Hall, the mayor’s new arts czar, said she has been touch with Mears and many other arts advocates around the city. As part of her new role at City Hall, she said, “I’m meeting with everyone.”

Asked how Scott will respond to the issues raised by Mears and others, Miller Hall said he takes their concerns seriously. She indicated that he may speak about BOPA during his State of the City address Monday night.

“It is a very good question,” Miller Hall said of Mears’ comments about the proper home for Baltimore’s Public Art Commission. “I’m a month and a half into my role and so there are a lot of things we’re evaluating…We’re rolling up our sleeves and trying to sort it out.”

Complicated issue

Members of the Public Art Commission took no action after their discussion with FOPA but said they’re glad Mears, De Palma and Kelly spoke up about the future of the arts in Baltimore. They said it’s a complicated issue that deserves a broad discussion in the arts community. They invited FOPA to come back to a future meeting when members have a specific proposal for the commission to consider.

Aaron Bryant, chair of the Public Art Commission, said he believes Mears is raising complicated issues that affect more than art, and more than city government.

“Is this really an art issue or an infrastructure issue?” he asked at one point. “It just becomes a much bigger issue than arts advocacy.” 

Whatever action the city takes, he said, it will be important to get support from elected officials who can provide public support for arts initiatives. 

“The reality is, we do have a city that is dealing with decay in lots of areas – education, housing, employment. And so how do we then make this an issue that can get on the radar of someone who doesn’t know anything about art or appreciate art?”

Bryant warned that the city likely will need help from others to address its art conservation needs.

“I would say that with all of the public art that we have in the city right now, it’s much bigger than the city,” he said. “And I’m not so sure the city can solve the problem, to be honest. I think it would have to go bigger. Would this have to be a statewide kind of movement? Or is this something that’s taken on by the arts community and then it becomes a federal thing, so we might apply for national grants or even international grants to take care of this issue as opposed to just relying on the city?”

Questions about the organization

Bryant added that he has always wondered why Promotion and The Arts are together in one agency, and how that came about. He thinks Baltimore should have a separate department within city government for arts and cultural affairs.

“There should be a Commissioner of Arts and Culture like there might be a Commissioner for Education,” he said. “Education and art should be seen on the same level to a certain degree…The implication should not be about promoting anything other than art and quality of life for the residents of Baltimore, as opposed to suggesting that it’s about marketing and tourism.”

Part of the challenge, he said, will be undoing what’s currently in place.

“I would say that to untangle what’s been tangled is really, really difficult. But it has to start somewhere.” 

Kelly said she hopes the members of the Public Art Commission will see the value of an arts agency that is fully part of city government, not a quasi-public agency.

“We really want you all to be an advocate for a city arts council, because within a city arts council there can be a genuine, professional, fully-staffed public art program that then you can be in a position to clearly advise,” she said.

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

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1 Comment

  1. Post ad a or articles for any artist that may have done murals or sculptures to cone forward. Or ask if anyone has old pictures or knows the decreased aetiat who did the work. Start from there and keep rexords from now on. Get interns to get resume credit while fixing up the art.

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