The long road back to Artscape has been littered by potholes and detours.

The country’s largest free arts festival, an annual Baltimore tradition since 1982 that attracts thousands each year, has seen upheaval and tumult ahead of its return Friday, the end of a three-year absence prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. Artscape and its organizer, the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, have attracted plenty of skepticism and ridicule on social media along the bumpy way.

With such scrutiny and curiosity surrounding a signature event for the city, it’s Todd Yuhanick’s job to lead Artscape back to prominence and many locals’ good graces. It’s also a role that the BOPA interim chief executive aims to make permanent: He wants the job going forward.

“I would love to be here for 10 years. I know what the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts was and can be,” Yuhanick said outside of an Old Goucher coffee shop during a late August interview. “We are the agency that throws world-class events and is able to support artists on the grassroots level. It’s a really unique office, and I see so much potential.”

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In June, BOPA chose Yuhanick to succeed Donna Drew Sawyer, whose four-and-a-half year tenure came to an ugly end at the beginning of the year. Sawyer resigned following a number of public gaffes for the quasi-city agency, including Artscape’s 2022 postponement and the initial scheduling of the 2023 edition during Rosh Hashanah. Mayor Brandon Scott demanded her exit and threatened to cut off funding BOPA for the fiscal year without it.

“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,” Scott said in a January letter to BOPA’s board shared with The Banner. City Council members’ approval to withhold city funding from the organization in both 2022 and 2023 were seemingly reflections of the growing discontent.

Yuhanick, an entertainment producer and former president of the local public relations company founded by his father, John Yuhanick Associates, said he heard about the CEO job opening while working on a TV show in Texas. The Baltimore County native didn’t hesitate to express his interest, reaching out to a board member via LinkedIn. A two-week interview process only confirmed his desire to guide BOPA through the recent tumult.

“I searched it out because of my fond memories of the great work they did in the creative hub of Baltimore,” said Yuhanick, who helped fundraise and did public relations work for BOPA about 15 years ago.

Today, Yuhanick said he envisions the Mount Royal area, where most of the action of Artscape occurs, transforming into a bustling celebration of local artisans, food vendors, painters, musicians, dancers, comedians, fashion designers and more. This weekend’s Artscape — which received more than 1,000 vendor and artist applications, Yuhanick said — will include new additions like the runway show dubbed Project Artscape and “B_23,” the event’s new indoor art exhibition that will feature works from city and regional artists. Artscape is also expanding the number of performance stages, adding a new “North of North” stage located at North Avenue and 20th Street.

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The return of Artscape is also a chance to refocus attention on its purpose, said Tonya Miller Hall, a senior adviser of arts and culture for the mayor’s office who has helped organize the event.

“I think in years past, [the festival] may have lost its way a little bit to sort of appeal to a lot of audiences, but if we’re saying that this is an arts festival, it should lean into all the arts and all of the disciplines,” said Miller Hall, a Baltimore native.

Typically held in July, Artscape is making its September debut after visitor data showed attendees were spending significantly less time at the festival year over year due to the heat, according to Miller Hall. The most common complaints organizers heard from festivalgoers and vendors were about the heat, she said.

Few would likely argue against organizers’ intentions, but the planning and logistical details surrounding Artscape have drawn sharp criticism from a range of local groups and residents whose plans were negatively affected by the date change.

While BOPA tried to appease Rosh Hashanah observers by pushing Artscape from Sept. 13-17 to Sept. 22-24, the new date caused popular neighborhood festivals in Hampden and Remington scheduled for that weekend to begrudgingly cancel and postpone their respective events. In July, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Lyric Baltimore, the Maryland Institute College of Art and the University of Baltimore criticized the “evolving plan — or lack thereof” of Artscape in a joint letter to Scott.

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Yuhanick said he was “really disappointed” by the scheduling conflicts.

“I love those events. I wish we could have found a workaround, and I think timing just became too late for that to happen,” he said. “But I’ve talked to them and I’d love to assist and BOPA could be a resource to make sure it happens moving forward.”

Next year’s Artscape does not yet have a date, according to Yuhanick. As BOPA vets possible weekends, it plans to solicit feedback from previously affected organizations “so we can make the festival as open and accessible to everybody with minimal impact to these cultural institutions.”

Then, of course, there was the issue of music. One of Artscape’s biggest draws is its headlining performer, including previous alums TLC, Wyclef Jean and George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. This year, BOPA first offered the rapper Ja Rule $75,000 to perform on Friday night, but rescinded the offer over last-minute negotiations, according to emails between the city’s events office and the rapper’s management reviewed by The Banner. (Miller Hall replied “no comment” to a reporter’s question about what happened with Ja Rule.)

Last month, BOPA announced that R&B singer Kelly Rowland, best known for her work with Destiny’s Child, would be Friday’s main performer. Then, as if on cue, another speed bump: Rowland was out just weeks before the festival over a dispute related to what kind of band would back the “Talk A Good Game” singer, according to a source with direct knowledge of the situation.

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Instead, DJ Pee .Wee, the alter-ego of rapper and singer Anderson .Paak, and Muni Long will headline Artscape’s opening night, with Nile Rodgers and Chic, along with Dr. Madd Vibe and the Missin’ Links, to follow on Saturday.

By then, the hope is the noise surrounding Artscape will have cleared and talks of the festival’s behind-the-scenes drama will be behind BOPA. Regardless of the outcome, Yuhanick said he wants to lead the organization for years to come, if given the opportunity.

Brian Lyles, BOPA’s president and board chair, said the CEO search is underway. He added that the group “couldn’t be more pleased with Todd.”

“His enthusiasm and ability to collaborate with our stakeholders and City leaders have been key assets this summer, especially in the preparations for the return of Artscape,” Lyles said via email. “These are the qualities that are essential to whoever ultimately leads BOPA on a permanent basis, whether that turns out to be Todd, or another qualified candidate.”

While Yuhanick awaits that decision, his focus remains on Artscape, which he described as “a celebration that Baltimore is back.” It’s time to support the artists who make up the city’s diverse and touted scene, he said.

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“The creative class is so important to this city,” he said, “and this is really their festival and their chance to shine — to show their wares, to make a living, to be a part of a community.”

Asked to envision a sign or symbol that all of their efforts were worth it, Miller Hall smiled.

“There will be no haters on Twitter,” she said with a laugh, before later adding, “I just hope people will really enjoy the festival because it takes a lot of grit to pull this off.”

Wesley Case writes The Scan, The Baltimore Banner’s weekday morning newsletter.

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