An attendee of the 2018 Baltimore Book Festival examines a book. Photo by Corey Jennings.

Artscape isn’t the only city festival that’s getting a makeover under its producer, the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts (BOPA).

During a meeting with City Council members this month, BOPA CEO Donna Drew Sawyer said the annual Baltimore Book Festival won’t continue in its most recent form and its days solely at the Inner Harbor are over.

BOPA — which serves as the “events producer” for the city of Baltimore, according to its website — had previously disclosed that the book festival would not be produced this year or next. The disclosure came at the same time BOPA said it won’t be producing the Artscape or Light City events this year either, but that Artscape will come back in 2023.

Sawyer, the agency’s CEO since July 2018, used part of a recent meeting with the council’s Ways and Means Committee to elaborate on her vision for the book festival. Her main point was that she doesn’t envision it occurring in a single location, as it has in the past.

“One of the things that we realize is that reading, literature, takes place everywhere,” she told the council members. “And what we would like to do is have a more distributed book festival so that we can partner with libraries, we can partner with CityLit [the CityLit Project is a non-profit that promotes literature with its CityLit Festival], and we’re exploring those opportunities right now, so that when the book festival returns it won’t be a place. It will be a series of events throughout the city, for everyone in the city.”

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor shoreline, the most recent setting for the book festival, likely will be the scene of construction activity that could make it less promising as a setting for large events in the next several years, she added.

“To squeeze it into three days at the harbor, also knowing that we are going to be undergoing construction in that area probably over the next three to five years, we would like to ensure the viability of the book festival by spreading the literary wealth throughout the city,” she said.

The book festival got its start in Mount Vernon, taking place in the streets and parks around the base of the Washington Monument. By the early 2000s it had become so successful that crowds were killing the grass in the parks, and organizers eventually moved it to the promenade around the Inner Harbor. In 2019, it was combined with Light City for the first time and held that November at the Inner Harbor. It wasn’t held in 2020 or 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sawyer, an author herself, was appearing before the Ways and Means Committee to answer questions about her agency’s budget request for roughly $2.6 million for fiscal 2023. She appeared for 83 minutes on June 2 and nearly an hour on June 14.

At the end of the second meeting, the committee said it would temporarily withhold $196,000 from BOPA’s budget until the agency answers requests related to layoffs and high turnover at the agency and how it spent city funds that were supposed to be used to produce Artscape, the Baltimore Book Festival, the Inner Harbor fireworks and other activities that were cancelled during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The decision was a sign of frustration and no confidence in the quasi-public agency on the part of some council members. Seventh district representative James Torrence called the agency’s communications with city residents “abysmal.” Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton, who represents the 6th district, said its focus on downtown and midtown and not districts such as hers “makes me angry.” Ways and Means Committee chair Eric Costello (11th district) said this is the first time he can recall an agency having funds temporarily withheld after budget hearings with an agency head.

Former employees say Sawyer didn’t like working on Artscape in the heat of July in 2018 and 2019, the last year it was held. In a front page story in The Baltimore Sun this spring, she said she wanted to shift the agency’s focus away from festivals and concentrate on other ways to celebrate the arts.

Others worry that the council’s decision to withhold funds from the agency temporarily will cause supporters of BOPA events to withhold or withdraw their support in the future. They say there are many other organizations that are putting on events to fill the gap left by BOPA, such as the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, and BOPA is not the only agency looking for support.

Appointed during the term of former Mayor Catherine Pugh, Sawyer stayed in her job under former Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and current Mayor Brandon Scott. She is listed as earning $159,897 for a 35-hour week, according to city records from more than a year ago. The director of BOPA is not directly appointed by the mayor but a separate board.

Sawyer did not respond to a request for reaction to the committee’s decision to withhold city funds temporarily and whether it will now cause supporters to halt donations to BOPA and support other organizations instead.

In her first meeting with the Ways and Means Committee, Sawyer said BOPA is exploring the idea of expanding the footprint of Artscape as a way to invigorate other areas besides Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon. She said she could one day see Artscape taking place in the Pennsylvania Avenue Black Arts and Entertainment District. “It may be that we move to a different area in ’24 or ’25 and continue to spread that wealth throughout the city,” she said.

That suggestion drew strong pushback from Costello, who said the city spent $7 million in infrastructure improvements designed to make Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon the permanent home of Artscape.

“I highly recommend that this agency…seriously reconsider the location of Artscape in 2023 to remain in Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon,” he said.

The idea of reinventing the Book Festival and spreading to multiple locations got a positive reception from at least two council members.

“Might I suggest Coppin State as one of the potential areas?” asked Council Member John Bullock, 9th district.

“It’s already on the list,” Sawyer said.

“I’m going to ask that you put Waverly on the list too,” said Council Member Odette Ramos, 14th district.

“Waverly is very high on the list,” Sawyer said.

“In my district, we have 10 bookstores and we have an amazing library and we have five of the bookstores in Waverly — a very diverse set of bookstores — so we’d love to be a part of it,” Ramos said.

“Those are the resources we want to tap,” Sawyer said. “We have worked with several bookstores in the past but not enough. So we’re looking…to spread the literary wealth throughout the city of Baltimore.”

“I think that’d be awesome for all of our communities,” Ramos said.

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