Donna Drew Sawyer, CEO of the Baltimore Office for Promotion & the Arts, speaks at the Walters Art Museum in summer 2022. Photo by Ed Gunts.

After a three-year absence, Baltimore’s Artscape festival will return next year as a five-day event in September, not in mid-July as it has always been in the past.

The Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts (BOPA), which produces Artscape, announced on artscape.org that the 2023 festival will be held from Wednesday, Sept. 13, to Sunday, Sept. 17.

“Artscape is Back,” the website says. “COVID-19 made it necessary for us to take a hiatus, and BOPA is eager to bring Artscape back better than ever.”

After laying off its festival staff during the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency has hired a new events director to help run Artscape and other events it’s charged with producing, including the Inner Harbor fireworks shows on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve.

Carlos-deShaun Brown started in May as BOPA’s Director of Live Events and Public Engagement. According to his biography on Linkedin.com, he has more than 10 years of experience as an “event, trade show and meeting management professional,” with past jobs as an event manager at QIAGEN in Germantown; senior meeting manager at Omega World Travel in Fairfax, Va.; and account manager at Hargrove Inc. in Lanham. He has a bachelor’s degree in interior design from Westwood College – Aurora, a school that has discontinued operations.

“Having built a 10+ year portfolio,” Brown states on LinkedIn, “I am well versed with the Technology/Security, Nonprofit, Federal Government, Education and Healthcare industries; partnering with C-Suite leadership, and various stakeholder groups, to manage events from small cocktail receptions to large-scale, multi-day conferences and trade shows with budgets up to $650K.”

BOPA representatives said earlier this year that the agency would organize a preview event this fall to provide details of the 2023 festival. That event, an “Artscape launch announcement” with Mayor Brandon Scott, has been scheduled for October 20 at the Parkway Theatre, 5 W. North Avenue.

Economic boost

Started in the 1980s and last held in 2019, Artscape typically draws upwards of 350,000 over a three-day period, providing an economic boost and positive publicity for the city. Artscape was cancelled as an in-person event in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. BOPA mounted a virtual version in 2020, including an artists’ market and tributes to previous festivals, but not in 2021 or 2022.

In April, Scott said that he wanted city festivals, including Artscape, to resume in 2022 as a sign of the city’s vibrancy. “We want all of our festivals to come back this year,” he said. “Not just Artscape, but we’re going to have AFRAM. We want to bring all of those things back, to get us back to some normalcy in the city.”

But BOPA officials said a day later that they needed more time to plan Artscape and line up sponsors. Instead, they said, the full event would return in 2023 and they’d offer a preview in 2022.

During City Council budget hearings in June, Ways and Means Committee chair Eric Costello questioned BOPA CEO Donna Drew Sawyer about the boundaries for the next Artscape. He said he had heard that it may not be held in the areas where it has been, Bolton Hill and Midtown – part of the district he represents.

Costello said the city has invested $7 million to make infrastructure improvements in Bolton Hill and Midtown, in part to support Artscape, and that it would be a waste of city funds to move it to a different location. The council temporarily withheld $196,000 from BOPA’s Fiscal 2023 budget until it got answers to some of their questions about Artscape and other BOPA initiatives.

The exact boundaries for the 2023 event haven’t been disclosed. Sawyer, BOPA’s CEO since 2017, said in a June budget hearing that BOPA didn’t plan to move Artscape away from Midtown entirely in 2023 but acknowledged that it was looking at the possibility of expanding its footprint to include other areas such as the Station North Arts and Entertainment District.

She said again in July that the current plan is not for Artscape 2023 to move from the area where it has traditionally been held. “It was never going to” move entirely, she said.

Sawyer also said in July that she didn’t want Artscape to be held in mid-summer anymore, because the heat takes a toll on both visitors and those who work at the event, and the mid-September dates shift it much closer to fall.

“Global warming is not a joke,” she said in July. “Our staff was severely affected in ’19 so I’m not doing that again.”

‘A bold new vision’

Part of the reason for not holding Artscape this year, BOPA officials say, is that they wanted to come up with “a bold new vision” for the event post-COVID, not just repeat what was done before, and that takes more time.

Last December, Sawyer and two other BOPA officials, Tonya Miller and Kirk Shannon-Butts, traveled to the Art Basel Miami Beach convention in Florida to get ideas for what can be done to make Baltimore’s Artscape more of a world-class event. It was a fact-finding mission reminiscent of ones former Mayor William Donald Schaefer sometimes went on.

Sawyer has said repeatedly she would like a re-imagined Artscape to be a tool for economic development as well as cultural enrichment. She also wants to make it less about food and more about art. The current statement on artscape.org reflects that vision:

“The origin of Artscape was to have a positive economic impact on the artists and makers throughout the city,” it states. “Baltimore is overflowing with creative talent, and we set out to reimagine Artscape in the tradition of the world’s great art festivals. A new Artscape promises to draw art enthusiasts from around the country and the world, ensuring that Baltimore becomes a world-class center of artistic excellence.”
The break caused by COVID-19 “gave us time to re-envision Artscape while respecting and accommodating how the pandemic has changed us all, especially how we engage during large public events,” it states.

“We envision a bold, ambitious festival with a singular focus on the Arts. An Artscape that is more accessible to everyone, and one that brings a lasting impact to communities in our city. We are working with those communities, partners, and stakeholders to ensure their voices are heard and included.”

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Ed Gunts

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