Artscape 2019. Photo by Tedd Henn.

Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA) Chief Executive Officer Donna Drew Sawyer will return to answer questions from the Baltimore City Council’s Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday after a contentious committee budget hearing June 2 about funds requested for Artscape and other events.

A week and a half ago, committee members suggested withholding BOPA’s funding from the city government in the fiscal year starting July 1 – about $2.2 million — unless it makes major changes to its operations and board structure; accounts for nearly $200,000 in city funds allocated during the COVID-19 pandemic; provides the names and titles of dozens of staffers laid off during the pandemic; and becomes more responsive to city residents and less secretive about its plans and operations.

The committee scheduled a second meeting with Sawyer, as well as BOPA’s board chair, for 10 a.m. Tuesday to follow up on questions and concerns raised during the first session.

During the June 2 budget hearing, half a dozen council members questioned Sawyer for more than 80 minutes about a range of subjects, from cancellation of the city’s popular Artscape festival for three years in a row to the status of the Baltimore Book Festival to BOPA’s general lack of visibility in city districts outside downtown and midtown.

“I have to tell you right now…I’m inclined to not appropriate a cent at all to BOPA considering the outcome of his hearing,” said Eric Costello, 11th district councilman and chair of the council’s Ways and Means Committee, which is meeting with agency heads this month to arrive at a budget for the next fiscal year. “I am extremely, extremely disappointed in the direction that this organization has taken.”

Sharon Green Middleton, vice chair of the council, said she knows little about the agency because it does little in her district, the 6th, which includes the Pimlico Race Course and Park Heights.

“The focus of this particular office seems to be with…Artscape and things downtown, and it makes me angry,” she told Sawyer. “Are we wasting money? I’m not trying to be negative, but I’m like: How is this helping the district I represent?”

James Torrence, representing the 7th district, criticized BOPA for allowing the “We Own This City” series to be filmed where the Freddie Gray riots occurred in 2015, saying it “traumatized” residents all over again to see riots reenacted there. Robert Stokes Sr., representing the 12th district, questioned the location of a mural in his district.

Third district representative Ryan Dorsey questioned the make-up of BOPA’s governing board, saying it has no one on it whom he considers a true artist.

“When I look at the board of directors of BOPA there is not a single person who I would characterize as a member of Baltimore’s arts and cultural community and certainly no one I would consider a pillar of Baltimore’s arts and cultural community,” he said. “There is no way that I can believe that BOPA is functioning in service to the arts and cultural community of Baltimore City with absolutely zero representation of it on the board.”

Much of the questioning centered on Artscape, the free arts festival that typically draws upwards of 350,000 people to midtown over a three-day period and brings the city national attention but hasn’t been held since 2019.

Council members asked why BOPA is requesting $98,000 to hold Artscape and other events in Fiscal 2023 when its director has already said it won’t hold Artscape this summer, which is part of Fiscal 2023. They asked what happened to money that was allocated for Artscape festivals and firework displays that weren’t held in 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Costello also asked where future Artscape festivals will be held. He made it clear that he doesn’t want to see Artscape move away from Midtown, which is in his district, after the city spent $7 million in infrastructure improvements designed to make Bolton Hill and Midtown the permanent home for the festival.

Asking questions

The June 2 hearing was scheduled to give Ways and Means committee members a chance to ask Sawyer about BOPA’s request for about $2.2 million in city funds during the year beginning July 1 and how it has used past funds.

As part its request, BOPA is seeking $98,000 to help put on Artscape and other events. Sawyer said in April that BOPA will not mount a full Artscape festival in the summer of 2022 but that it will come back in 2023 and that BOPA will offer a “preview” of the 2023 event in 2022.

Sawyer acknowledged in her opening remarks that Artscape is a “beloved” event and the activity for which BOPA is best known. At the same time, she said, only $98,000 of the $2.2 million requested by BOPA for fiscal 2023 would go toward Artscape and other festivals.

The budget meeting was originally scheduled to last 30 minutes but ran much longer as council members raised more and more questions about BOPA’s policies and Sawyer’s leadership.

Sawyer, in her 70s, was named BOPA’s CEO in July 2018. A Bolton Hill resident, she is listed as earning $159,867 for a 35-hour week, according to city records from more than a year ago. She was appointed to her position during the administration of former Mayor Catherine Pugh and has stayed in her job under Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Brandon Scott. The director of BOPA is not directly appointed by the mayor but by a separate board.

BOPA serves as the city’s official arts council, film office and events agency. During Sawyer’s tenure, the city cancelled several of the signature events for which BOPA is known. They include the Inner Harbor Fourth of July fireworks in 2020 and 2021, the New Years Eve fireworks in at the end of 2020 and 2021, Light City, the Baltimore Book Festival and the Artscape festivals in 2020 and 2021. BOPA has announced plans to bring back the Fourth of July fireworks this year but not Artscape.

During the pandemic, Sawyer laid off the agency’s entire festival staff and made some new hires, including at least three employees who have the words “marketing” or “communications” in their titles. At the budget meeting, she introduced a former executive director of Charm TV, Tonya Miller Hall, as BOPA’s Chief of Marketing and Events.

Sawyer agreed with some of the council members’ comments, saying she’d like to see more artists on BOPA’s board as Dorsey suggested and she’d like to spread the agency’s activities to more parts of the city as Middleton suggested.

In response to certain policy questions, she said BOPA merely provides staffing support for groups such as the Public Art Commission and doesn’t make actual decisions such as where to paint a mural, leaving that up to the communities that want a mural.

A different approach

At times, Sawyer contradicted the council members, especially Costello. She said she wasn’t aware of a $7 million investment in city funds to keep Artscape where it was but that at least one change along Mount Royal Avenue, if it had been meant to support Artscape, backfired.

She declined to say exactly where Artscape would be when it returns in 2023. She said BOPA is still “gathering information and talking to people” to decide where to hold it and will brief the mayor about that in July. She said BOPA doesn’t plan to move Artscape away from Midtown entirely in 2023 but acknowledged that it is looking at the possibility of expanding its footprint to include other areas such as Station North.

As for future years, Sawyer said she doesn’t agree that Artscape should be held in the exact same area year after year and is open to the idea of moving Artscape to other parts of the city. She said she thinks the arts can be an economic engine for the city and she’d like to “spread the wealth” around. She said she can envision Artscape being held someday in the newly-designated Pennsylvania Avenue Black Arts & Entertainment District, which she called the “Pennsylvania Arts and Entertainment District.”

“The goal is to use the power of the arts to improve areas and then move on and continue to improve them,” she said. “If we keep having the same events in the same place every time, we’ll never be able to spread that wealth. So it may be that we expand the footprint in ‘23. It may be that we move to a different area in ‘24 or ‘25 and continue to spread that wealth throughout the city.”

The objective is “to make the arts an economic engine for the City of Baltimore,” she said. “We have a wealth of talent in the city, all over the city, not just in one specific place, and we would love to take advantage of it. If you look at areas in other cities like Detroit and Miami, that’s what they’ve used: the arts as an economic engine to power progress, redevelopment and investment in their cities. And BOPA sees that as a goal and we will achieve that as we move forward.”

The pandemic may have set back efforts to use the arts to rejuvenate Baltimore, but the vision remains, she said. “The pandemic really put a big hole in the fabric that we were weaving, so we have to weave over that and move forward.“

Questions about money

The questions about Artscape began after Sawyer told the committee that BOPA plans to hold the next Artscape festival in 2023, during fiscal year 2024 for the city.

Costello asked about the time frame.

“I think there was a typo in what you said,” Costello said. “You mentioned that Artscape was coming back in 2023. I think you meant to say 2022?”

“No,” she told him. “2023. The full Artscape will be back in 2023.”

Costello asked for some clarification.

“Can you help me understand why this organization needs…$98,000 from the city of Baltimore this year when it has no intention of putting on Artscape” until 2023? he asked.

Sawyer said BOPA needs the money this year to help plan Artscape for 2023. She said it is a “heavy lift” to bring Artscape back from a three-year hiatus and get sponsors to support it. She said the money allocated in fiscal year 2023 will be used as “seed money” to help plan the festival for fiscal year 2024 and line up sponsors and supporters. She also said BOPA is planning to have a preview of Artscape 2023 in the fall of 2022, to let people know what is coming, and money is needed for that.

“We are in the process of building Artscape for ‘23, “she said. “We have development costs, speaking to potential partners, funders, foundation sponsors. All of that we have to pay people to do.”

Costello still wasn’t convinced, saying he would think planning funds for Artscape 2023 would come out of next year’s budget, not this year’s budget.

“You are inevitably going to come back to the City Council next year to justify your budget request for Fiscal Year 24 and you will inevitably use $98,000 of that approximately $2.5 million appropriation or grant toward Artscape for calendar year 2023,” he said. “I fail to understand the justification for $98,000 in Fiscal Year ‘23 for an event that is simply not going to occur in 2022.”

“What we are planning has to occur this year in order to take place next year,” Sawyer replied. “There are things like deposits, booking fees, rental fees, making sure that we have the personnel to not only perform the logistical work but to perform the actual work of doing the event.”

The economy is a factor as well, she said.

“It is a very heavy lift to bring Artscape back to Baltimore City in the wake of a pandemic and in the midst of an inflationary upturn. So we are using the $98,000 to help us mitigate those headwinds so that we can in fact present an event that’s worthy of this city next year. Many of our funders are very hesitant to come back into the market. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be talking to them right now, so that is what we’re doing. We’re trying to get commitments that will enable us to move swiftly and smoothly into an Artscape in ‘23.”

Dorsey asked Sawyer what happened to the money allocated in fiscal years 2021 and 2022 for BOPA events that were never held because of the pandemic.

Sawyer said the $98,000 isn’t just for Artscape but for other events in the city as well, including the Baltimore Book Festival and Light City. Neither of those events were held in 2020 or 2021 either.

Pressed further, Sawyer said that when the pandemic forced the cancellation of large public gatherings, BOPA had to “pivot” and spent its city allocation in other ways to ”keep artists in the city.”

Costello also asked about the status of two external accounts that he said contained roughly $2.5 million in 2018. Sawyer said she didn’t have the figures with her but didn’t think the amount was that high.

Torrence asked about the number of BOPA employees who were laid off or left the agency during the pandemic even though BOPA sought and received Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds designed to keep people employed during the COVID-19 crisis.

Sawyer said many of the employees were with the division that put on festivals, which couldn’t be held during the pandemic. She said she had hoped to bring them back in 2021, but it wasn’t possible.

Torrence expressed concern that BOPA lost “historic knowledge” when so many employees left during the pandemic. He also told Sawyer that BOPA is falling short as far as letting residents know about sudden road closings related to filming and other activities that affect their lives.

“The communication from BOPA is absolutely abysmal,” he said. “In my district, several times you have [had] road closures with less than 24 hours’ notice for multiple days. That is irresponsible and inexplicably wrong, especially when we pay property taxes.”

Another hearing

By the end of the hearing, Middleton said she was “even more confused” about what BOPA does than when the session began. “I have questions.”

Dorsey said he was reluctant to approve the $98,000 line item for Artscape and other events, if Artscape isn’t going to be held in fiscal year 2023. He said he’d like to see representatives from the arts world added to the board as soon as possible.

Sawyer said she doesn’t have the authority to do that but she can report that the board is in negotiations to add “one of the pillars of the arts community,” although she can’t say who they are. She also said the board recently added Sandra Gibson, executive director of the Maryland Film Festival.

Dorsey repeated his call for change.

“The City Council’s budget powers are limited, but one thing in particular the City Council does have a unique power to do is to make conditional constraints on funds released to any organization that is not the City of Baltimore or a City of Baltimore agency,” he said.

“I am going to urge my colleagues here to seriously consider the possibility of constraining any appropriations to BOPA contingent on a change in its board makeup within a very, very short period of time because I cannot possibly take BOPA as a representation of the arts and cultural community and its interests here in Baltimore City with a board that looks anything close to what this board looks like at present.”

Costello said he was inclined to go further and withhold all city funds from the agency for fiscal year 2023, if he can’t get satisfactory answers to the committee’s questions. He said he wants Sawyer to come back for another meeting with the Ways and Means Committee, bring her board chair, and be prepared to answer questions raised during the first session.

“I highly recommend that this organization take to heart the feedback that you received from the council today and take seriously the requests for information and very, very seriously reconsider the location of Artscape in 2023 to remain in Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon,” he said.

On the list of information that council members wanted to know for the next meeting is: The names and titles of every employee who was laid off or left BOPA during the pandemic; what happened to the $2.5 million that was in external accounts; what happened to city funds allocated for festivals that were cancelled for 2020, 2021 and 2022, and a copy of BOPA’s current operating bylaws.

The city’s fiscal year 2023 budget is supposed to be passed well before July 1, so property tax bills can go out on time. Costello said he is willing to hold up passage of the city’s entire $3.2 billion budget if he’s not satisfied by the follow-up meeting with Sawyer on Tuesday.

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Ed Gunts

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