Stilt walkers move through the street as attendees of Artscape 2019 visit vendor tents. Photo credit: Artscape/Instagram.

The agency that puts on Artscape and other city events is going to start off the new budget year with less money from Baltimore’s government than it requested.

Baltimore City Council Member Eric Costello, chair of the City Council’s Ways and Means Committee, said council members are planning to withhold $196,000 in funding that the agency’s CEO sought for the budget year that begins July 1, until it gets satisfactory answers to questions that council members have raised about the agency’s operations and fulfillment of contractual obligations.

The figure is based on two times $98,000 – the amount the City Council allocated in each of the past two years for the Artscape festival and other in-person events that were never held by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts (BOPA), the quasi-public agency that serves as the city’s arts council, film office and producer of events.

The decision to withhold funds was spelled out today towards the end of a second budget meeting this month with BOPA’s CEO, Donna Drew Sawyer.

Costello, who has represented Baltimore’s 11th district for nearly eight years and chaired the committee that oversees the annual budget process for six, said this is the first time that he can recall an agency having funds temporarily withheld after budget hearings with an agency head.

He said the bulk of the funds that BOPA sought for fiscal year 2023 – about $2.6 million in all — will be approved by the Ways and Means Committee for inclusion in the city’s operating budget, and the $196,000 will be restored once BOPA addresses the questions and concerns that council members have raised.

Costello said council members intend to withhold the $196,000 by drafting an amendment to the Ordinance of Estimates legislation that the council must approve to fund city operations for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Drafting an amendment to the budget bill is a way to withhold funds from one agency without holding up passage of the city’s entire $3.2 billion budget, he explained.

“Essentially, we will put restrictions on [BOPA’s] funding, meaning the funding will be cut now, and then we will be amenable to restoring that money if and when BOPA meets the restrictions that we have placed,” he said.

In other words, “we’re putting a restriction on how much money they get from the city to make sure that they do the things we’ve asked them to do,” he said. “We’re withholding the $196,000 until certain conditions are met…. I’m optimistic that we will have our conditions met.”

In some cases, what BOPA did during the pandemic in lieu of holding an in-person festival wasn’t “clearly communicated to the city” in the form of receipts, records and other documentation, said Council Member James Torrence, 7th district.

That’s why council members want to know who was laid off or left the agency during the pandemic, and why there was a lot of turnover in general, Torrence said. “We’re trying to make sure that they complied with their contract with the city.”

Follow-up to a previous hearing

In an 83-minute hearing with Sawyer on June 2, Costello and other Ways and Means Committee members voiced a number of concerns about BOPA and asked Sawyer to return with responses.

Many of their questions at Tuesday’s hearing involved the annual Artscape festival and layoffs of BOPA staffers who worked on it. The popular festival, which used to draw 350,000 people to midtown over a three-day period, hasn’t been held since 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Sawyer has said it won’t be held in 2022 but BOPA has indicated it will return in 2023.

Part of the discussion Tuesday involved questions about where Artscape will be held when it returns. Costello said he doesn’t want the festival to move out of Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon, part of his district and the site of the festival’s “original footprint.”

Sawyer said she likely won’t have an exact footprint of the 2023 festival to show the council for another 60 days. She assured Costello that Artscape won’t move away from Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon entirely in 2023, but she did say the festival may expand to other areas.

“We are not leaving the Mount Vernon-Midtown area,” she said. “We will continue to present in that area. We are working diligently with our partners to make sure we have a robust presence” there.

Costello said he doesn’t want any expansion of Artscape to come “at the expense of Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon” and he still wants to see and approve the exact footprint before any of the withheld funds are released.

Torrence said he still wants to see names of all of the BOPA employees who have left or been laid off during the pandemic, because the list he received was incomplete. Sawyer said BOPA was advised it cannot release any names without the former employees’ consent. Torrence said he still wants to see all of the names before the withheld funds are released.

Virtual Artscape

Council Member Odette Ramos, 14th district, said she’d like a detailed accounting of what BOPA did with the money that was allocated in fiscal years 2021 and 2202 for Artscape festivals that weren’t held. “Would you have had to get permission to spend the money elsewhere?” she asked Sawyer.

Sawyer said that even though BOPA didn’t have an in-person Artscape festival in 2020 due to the pandemic, “we did do a virtual edition of Artscape that ran from June through August of 2020,” with a “virtual market” and other online activities, and the festival funds were used for that. In fact, she said, the digital events “cost in excess of what the city gave us” for an in-person event.

For 2021, she said, BOPA again had no physical Artscape, but it used the city funds for planning and other work leading up to the in-person event before it was cancelled. “So all that money did go to the preparation of Artscape,” she said. Sawyer said planning had not begun for Light City and the Baltimore Book Festival in 2021, so no city money went for those activities.

Torrence and Ramos told Sawyer they would like to see financial statements and other information backing up the verbal explanations she gave.

Council Member Ryan Dorsey, 3rd district, said he wants to see more artists added to the board that oversees BOPA, so it better represents the arts community it’s meant to serve.

Brian Lyles, the BOPA board’s newly-appointed chair, said he has worked in a variety of marketing and fundraising positions for arts organizations, including Center Stage Baltimore, the Baltimore Museum of Industry and the Engineering Society of Baltimore. He and Sawyer also pointed to board members Sandra Gibson, executive director of the Maryland Film Festival, and Heidi Daniel, president and CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Dorsey said he wanted more. He asked if the governing board’s bylaws spell out a process for appointing members with specific backgrounds or areas of expertise, the way bylaws of the city’s preservation commission and other boards do.

Dorsey said he graduated from Baltimore’s School for the Arts and the Peabody Conservatory and he and his wife go to a wide range of arts events around town, and he doesn’t ever run into anyone from the BOPA board.

“I spend a lot of time at cultural events in the city and I attend a lot of things” that draw “a huge cross section of people,” he said, “and I just don’t see the people that I commonly see and engage with” represented on BOPA’s roster.

While BOPA has cancelled major events over the past two years, others organizations in Baltimore have begun producing festivals, including the Baltimore by Baltimore series organized by the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore.

Last week, Mayor Brandon Scott announced a new festival coming to Cherry Hill, and Historic Ships of Baltimore and others unveiled plans for a weeklong festival, Maryland Fleet Week & Flyover Baltimore, from September 7 to 13.

Although Fleet Week is not a BOPA event, some of BOPA’s former employees will be working to organize and promote it, including former BOPA “festivals guru” Kathy Hornig and communications specialist Tracy Baskerville.

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Ed Gunts

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