When she was named CEO of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts (BOPA) in 2018, Donna Drew Sawyer expressed doubts that she would last as long as her predecessor, Bill Gilmore, who had served seven different Baltimore mayors over 37 years with the city.
“I probably won’t be here as long as Bill,” Sawyer told a reporter, back when she was still giving interviews. “But I will stay as long as they let me.”
Sawyer resigned on Tuesday, after serving four and a half years with three mayors.
She submitted her resignation four days after the third mayor, Brandon Scott, wrote the president of BOPA’s board on Friday to say that he had lost confidence in Sawyer’s ability to lead the organization, which serves as the city’s arts council, events producer and film office.
The day before, BOPA announced Thursday that it had made a “conscious decision” not to put on the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade and recommended that Baltimoreans take part in a “day of service” instead to honor the slain civil rights leader.
The decision drew sharp criticism from a wide range of Baltimoreans, including Congressman Kweisi Mfume; former Mayor Sheila Dixon and City Councilman Eric Costello. All made the same argument: that it was possible to have both a day of service and organize a parade to honor Dr. King, as Baltimore has done in the past.
Scott told BOPA president Brian Lyles that he wanted Sawyer gone by Jan. 15 — fittingly, King’s actual birthday.
When BOPA decided not to immediately remove Sawyer as Scott requested, the mayor hired one of her top lieutenants, Tonya Miller Hall, to fill a new City Hall position as Senior Advisor for Arts & Cultural Affairs, in effect weakening BOPA and crowning a new arts czar for the city in one stroke.
Scott’s chess move worked: Sawyer’s resignation came the same day Miller Hall’s appointment was announced, and BOPA’s board accepted it, effective immediately.
“On behalf of the entire Board, we are extremely grateful to Donna for her many contributions and leadership, particularly during what was an unprecedented time for us all and in light of the extended disruption that the global pandemic caused, especially for artists and our vital cultural institutions,” Lyles said in a statement.
Scott had no immediate comment.
BOPA said in an announcement that its board will launch a search for its next CEO and will have more to say about the process “in the coming days.” The board so far has not named an interim director.
“I will be working directly with senior leadership to ensure daily operations are maintained, as we continue our efforts on behalf of the citizens of Baltimore,” said Lyles, who is Director of Development for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in Baltimore. “We are fully committed to a robust and constructive partnership with the Mayor, City Councilmembers, and other community leaders.”
BOPA is an independent non-profit organization that has a contractual arrangement to perform various arts-related tasks for the city, with the City of Baltimore providing a portion of its operating funds. Its current contract with the city ends on June 30, 2024.
BOPA has become best known over the years for producing festivals and events, including Artscape, Light City, the Baltimore Book Festival, the Inner Harbor fireworks displays on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve, and the MLK Day Parade. As the city’s arts council, it awards grants for artists and promotes their work through programs such as the Janet & Walter Sondheim Art Prize competition.
A writer and arts administrator in her mid-70s, Sawyer joined BOPA as Chief of External Affairs in 2017. In 2018, she was named to succeed Gilmore as CEO by a board-appointed search committee. The Bolton Hill resident earned more than $170,000 in the year ending June 30, 2020, according to The Baltimore Banner.
During Sawyer’s tenure, BOPA became known for not holding in-person events, including Artscape, Light City and the book festival in 2020, 2021 and 2022. Sawyer initially said the city couldn’t have large gatherings because of the COVID pandemic and public health concerns. But as COVID vaccines became available and other cities started to have festivals and events again, BOPA was slow to bring back large gatherings in Baltimore.
Last April, when Scott said Artscape would be back in 2022 to help restore a sense of “normalcy” to the city after the lockdowns during COVID, BOPA corrected him, saying the organization needed more time to plan the event. Sawyer said she didn’t anticipate bringing Light City or the book festival back until 2024.
A recurring source of vexation and embarrassment for the mayor has been a series of missteps in BOPA’s announcements.
In September, BOPA initially posted on Artscape.org that Artscape 2023 would be held September 13 to 17, 2023 – dates that would have overlapped with the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 15 to 17, 2023. “This is a huge error,” council member Odette Ramos tweeted. After members of Baltimore’s large Jewish community objected, BOPA changed the dates to Sept. 20 to 24, saying the earlier dates were never firm.
It happened again last week when BOPA issued a “media advisory” on Thursday saying that the MLK parade wouldn’t be held in 2023, and indicating that BOPA was responsible for organizing the parade. After Mfume and others criticized the decision not to have the parade – “It’s disgraceful,” Mfume said –BOPA issued a “clarifying statement” saying the Mayor’s Office makes the ultimate decisions on whether to hold or cancel the parade, not BOPA.
Yet another example of a misstatement is when Sawyer told her board that BOPA received a $30,000 grant in 2022 from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and that it was that first grant BOPA ever received from that federal agency. “That has never happened before,” she said. “That was a day of joyous rejoicing when we got the news on that.” But a quick check showed that BOPA had received eight other grants from the NEA over the last 15 years.
Most recently, she has been working on a plan to rebrand BOPA by giving the organization a new name, “Create Baltimore,” as a way to give it a fresh start and help raise funds. “Helping us tell the BOPA story, that’s how we are going to raise funds for this organization,” she told her board in December. “This is a very challenging time for organizations of our type…All we need is an opportunity to tell the story.”
Scott had publicly expressed support for Sawyer as recently as October, appearing with her at a news conference about Artscape 2023. He even tried to smooth over the Rosh Hashanah flub, saying the revised dates are “not going to conflict with any holidays.” But in his Jan. 6 letter asking for Sawyer’s ouster, Scott indicated that he had had enough of her gaffes, excuses and lack of follow-through.
“Over the last two years, there have been numerous missteps and shortcomings, including low staff morale, the flawed scheduling of Artscape on Rosh Hashanah and the recent decision to not prioritize the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade,” he wrote. “These issues demonstrate a clear lack of effective leadership at BOPA. I have lost confidence in Ms. Sawyer’s ability to effectively lead the organization and carry out BOPA’s mission.”
During their fiscal 2023 budget deliberations, City Council members temporarily withheld $196,000 from the $2.6 million allocation that BOPA had requested as a show of lack of support for its operation and Sawyer’s leadership during the COVID pandemic.
Members of the council’s Ways and Means Committee had asked what BOPA did with the city funds that were allocated for Artscape and other events that were never held in 2020 and 2021 and Sawyer provided no clear answer, saying the agency had to “pivot” to support artists in other ways. In two City Council budget hearings last June, she seemed to have little grasp of BOPA’s financial situation, repeatedly relying on other employees from the agency to answer basic questions about staff size and expenditures.
Sawyer told her board in December that she was “very proud” of the work she did at BOPA in 2022 and that the city’s spending panel, the Board of Estimates, would have a meeting this month to consider her request to restore the funds withheld by the City Council. The Board of Estimates has not yet taken any vote on whether to restore the withheld funds.
Sawyer again yesterday expressed pride in the contributions she has made to the city.
“I am proud of the work that my team and I have accomplished during my tenure, and I wish BOPA every success going forward as it continues to uplift and enable the tremendous creatives who are vital to the social, economic and civic fabric of communities across Baltimore City,” she said in a prepared statement.