Facing pressure from Baltimore’s mayor to step down, the head of the city’s arts council, film office and events center has resigned.

Donna Drew Sawyer, who led the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts, will no longer lead the department, said Brian D. Lyles, president of BOPA’s board of directors, in a statement Tuesday night. He said the search for her replacement begins immediately.

Sawyer’s resignation punctuates a dramatic few days in Baltimore, which began last week when the arts organization announced it would not be staging its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade for the third consecutive year. Initially, a spokeswoman from the mayor’s office said the decision had been made jointly.

Then, facing criticism from members of the City Council, BOPA released a “clarifying statement” that shifted blame for the parade’s cancellation on the mayor’s office. Mayor Brandon Scott responded with a Friday night call for Sawyer’s resignation, and then earlier Tuesday poached a member of BOPA’s leadership staff to head arts and culture initiatives for the city. He also threatened to withhold funding in fiscal year 2024 if BOPA’s board of directors didn’t comply with his order by Jan. 15.

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In an interview with The Baltimore Banner Tuesday, Scott said that he’s long been interested in hiring a dedicated arts liaison — pointing to his transition report, which mentions creating such a position — and said that now is the time to do it given BOPA’s ongoing problems.

Meanwhile, the parade is back on: Scott announced in a late-night tweet Sunday that his office would take over the event. Spokespeople from the Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office and the Department of Public Works told The Banner they will be cooperating with the mayor’s office to stage the parade.

Formed in 2002, BOPA operates with a combination of city funding and private donations. It is responsible for organizing, producing and managing promotional events that include the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade as well as other free, citywide events such as Artscape, the Baltimore Book Festival, Light City and Baltimore’s New Year’s Eve Spectacular, according to a copy of the organization’s scope of services agreement with the city.

In fiscal year 2023, BOPA received $2.5 million in city general funds.

In the event BOPA is unable to fulfill its contractual obligations with the city, it is required to “immediately” contact a representative in the mayor’s office, according to a copy of an amended agreement between Baltimore and BOPA.

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It remains unclear why the parade was not scheduled to run this year.

BOPA’s reduced programming since the pandemic hit — including after Scott lifted the pandemic containment measures that prevented large gatherings — has been fiercely criticized by City Hall officials and the city’s arts community. Last June, City Council removed $196,000 from BOPA’s budget, the amount it allocated in fiscal years 2020 and 2021 for Artscape, and has placed requirements on its reinstatement.

The organization also administers grant awards to arts organizations and artists; manages facilities including the historic Cloisters Castle, the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower, and the School 33 Art Center; and runs the weekly Baltimore Farmers Market from April through December.

Like other city-based organizations and agencies, BOPA ran into funding and attendance challenges with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Baltimore budget documents. Annual attendance across events hit a high of 1.5 million people in 2018 before dropping to 78,000 in 2020, when most public events were suspended, records show. In 2021, only 108,855 showed up to events despite BOPA’s target of 1.8 million, according to the budget documents.

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Despite having a target of hosting eight BOPA-sponsored events in 2021, the organization did not hold any, according to budget documents. Its events target for 2023 is 44 BOPA-sponsored events.

Tax documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service also paint a portrait of decline for the arts organization during the initial year of the pandemic, the latest year for which such information is available. For the fiscal year ending June 2020, the organization reported a 20% revenue loss as well as substantial reductions in contributions and grants, program service revenue, investment income and other revenue, according to the online tax forms.

Grants, salaries and compensation and other expenses also dropped that year, according to the forms, while its total liabilities grew. But Sawyer, who earned $128,642 the year prior, earned $172,839 in total compensation that year, the records show.

BOPA employment records show it lost more than a dozen employees over a three-month period in 2020. Staff vacancies included its chief of staff, its festival and facilities manager and its chief operating officer.

In 2020, the U.S. Small Business Administration approved a $688,555 federal loan for BOPA, with much of it designated for payroll purposes, according to an online Paycheck Protection Program loan database. By July 2021, the loan and its accrued interest had been marked as forgiven.

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In 2021, the organization received another federal loan, this time for $619,100. All except for $1 was reported to have gone to payroll, according to the data. By April 2022, the loan and some $7,000 in interest had been forgiven.

hallie.miller@thebaltimorebanner.com

Hallie Miller is a reporter at The Baltimore Banner, where she hopes to dive deep into the city's communities and highlight solutions. She is passionate about engaging readers and using new tools to tell stories. Hallie spent four years at The Baltimore Sun, where she helped lead the organization's medical coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. 

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