Mayor Brandon Scott has lost confidence in the CEO of Baltimore’s Office of Promotion and the Arts and wants her out by January 15.
Scott sent a letter on Friday to Brian Lyles, president of the independent organization that serves as Baltimore’s official arts council, events producer and film office, calling for its board to “remove” Donna Drew Sawyer, its CEO since 2018.
If it doesn’t “act swiftly,” Scott said, he is prepared to withhold city funding from BOPA in the future and assign its activities to other city agencies.
The letter came after a series of gaffes, flubs and missteps that Sawyer has made over the past year, including failure to produce the city’s Artscape festival for the third year in a row and then scheduling next year’s event to coincide with Rosh Hashanah, one of the most sacred holidays on the Jewish calendar.
In November, BOPA scheduled an event to celebrate the restoration of a public sculpture on Redwood Street by artist Linda DePalma but then canceled the ceremony 15 minutes before it was due to begin. Sawyer told her board that the event was canceled due to rain, but insiders say it was because the staff hadn’t obtained the city permits required to close the street temporarily.
The final straw, apparently, was BOPA’s announcement this week that it will not hold the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Parade in 2023 — a decision that drew sharp criticism from a wide range of Baltimoreans, including Congressman Kweisi Mfume and former Mayor Sheila Dixon.
A spokesman for the Mayor’s Office, Jack French, said in an email that the MLK Parade will be back in 2024.
BOPA had embarrassed Scott in April when he promised that Artscape would come back in 2022 “bigger and better” after a two-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. BOPA corrected him the next day by saying Artscape will be back in 2023 and BOPA will offer a “preview” in 2022, which turned out to be a press conference.
BOPA is a non-profit that receives approximately $2.6 million from the city’s operating budget every year, with a portion of the money earmarked to help put on events such as Artscape, the Baltimore Book Festival, Light City, the Inner Harbor fireworks displays and the MLK parade.
Sawyer, who is in her mid-70s, was named CEO of BOPA when Catherine Pugh was Baltimore’s mayor, and she has retained her job under Pugh’s successors, Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Scott. She earned $172,839 in total compensation during the year ended June 2020, according to The Baltimore Banner.
Because BOPA is an independent entity and not a city agency, Scott can’t technically fire Sawyer. But because the City of Baltimore is BOPA’s largest source of funding, Scott can put pressure on its board to take certain actions. This was made clear in the letter he sent to Lyles on Friday, in which he asked the board to oust Sawyer and outlined what he will do if it doesn’t.
Here is the text of Scott’s letter to BOPA’s president:
I am writing to request that the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts Board of Directors (BOPA) remove Donna Drew Sawyer as Chief Executive Officer. It has become clear that BOPA is not meeting the expectations of the city and is causing significant disappointment and frustration for the residents of Baltimore.
Over the past two years, there have been numerous missteps and shortcomings, including low staff morale, the flawed scheduling of Artscape on Rosh Hashanah and their recent decision to not prioritize the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade. 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.
I will not fund BOPA in the upcoming fiscal year and I will not renew BOPA’s contract when the current one expires if Ms. Sawyer is not removed by January 15, 2023. If the Board fails to act swiftly, I am prepared to transition the organization’s responsibilities to other City agencies who will be able to uplift Baltimore’s arts community while maintaining our traditions.
As the Chief Executive of the City, it is my duty to ensure that our community is able to participate in meaningful and memorable events. I look forward to discussing how we can work together to move BOPA in the right direction.
Sawyer and Lyles did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Scott’s letter.
If BOPA replaces Sawyer as Scott has demanded, it will be the latest in a series of local arts organizations that have seen a change in leadership over the past year. Others include the Creative Alliance, the American Visionary Art Museum and the Maryland Center for History and Culture. In addition, the Baltimore Museum of Art is currently looking for a new director.
Scott’s call for a change of leadership is likely to affect a number of initiatives that BOPA has in the works, starting with the Artscape festival now scheduled for September 20 to 24 with a sprawling footprint that extends from Mount Vernon and Bolton Hill into the Station North arts district.
Sawyer had pushed for the festival to be moved from July to September because she didn’t want her staff working outdoors in the summer heat. But organizers of other festivals that have traditionally taken place in September and October, such as the Pigtown Festival and Hampdenfest, have expressed concerns that Artscape’s move could take up finite city resources that they count on to make their events a success.
French, the mayor’s senior communications associate, said in a statement Saturday that Scott wants the city to continue producing events and activities that honor its traditions and mark its achievements.
“Mayor Scott is dedicated to maintaining Baltimore’s rich cultural traditions while also introducing new programming that showcases our city’s welcoming and inclusive spirit,” he said.
“Unfortunately, it has become apparent that the current leadership of BOPA is not aligned with these values. Under Mayor Scott’s leadership, the City has proven its ability to successfully organize and host a wide range of mayoral events, from major festivals like AFRAM and Charm City Live to the Veterans Day Parade and the Mayor’s BMore Lit teen summer series. We are confident in our ability to take on additional event planning responsibilities that align with the Mayor’s vision for a welcoming and vibrant Baltimore.”