As a freelance communication and design consultant, I’ve had the pleasure and sometimes the misfortune of working with many arts organizations and events producers in Baltimore. The Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts had been a repeat contract for me from 2017 until 2020, for roles reviewing applications for grant funds and during major city events, such as Artscape.
The organization known as BOPA became better known in recent days as Mayor Brandon Scott demanded the resignation of Donna Drew Sawyer, its chief executive officer, in a letter to the board of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit. His action followed the announcement of the cancellation of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade.Tuesday night, the BOPA board announced Sawyer’s resignation.
Because of my affinity for, and experience with, the arts and planning, I did think it odd that we just found out the parade had been abandoned. Planning would’ve had to start last year. Wouldn’t people in city government, including Mayor Scott or maybe his team, have known quite a bit sooner that the parade wasn’t going to proceed?
Scott did announce later that the city will move forward with the parade and that it is still being held Jan. 16, now with an anti-violence theme. The city deserves some semblance of a parade, however rushed, and invoking that theme is a fitting way to amplify Martin Luther King Jr.’s principles of nonviolence. In describing a primary principle in “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story,” he wrote: “Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.”
The parade is a huge core memory for me and so many Baltimoreans across neighborhoods and varied upbringings, but it’s always been especially important for Black and queer Baltimore. We all look forward to the boom cat, cat, boom of drummers who had rehearsed since late summer near recreation centers and empty shopping strip parking lots in West Baltimore, paired with the scraping sound of white-heeled boots worn by dancers sashaying up Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in sparkly handmade get-ups. The parade has also been an opportunity for us to see our elected officials, nonprofits, Greek-letter organizations and others, a day of unity to set intentions for the year.
In the initial cancellation of the parade, the suggestion from BOPA was that we should participate or plan a day of service. I posted to my Instagram followers that I was looking for service sites to plan my own day. BOPA did swiftly repost my effort, but I came to my senses quickly after I was given the recommendation of participating in one of three existing days of service organized by Gov.-elect Wes Moore, Lt. Gov.-elect Aruna Miller, United Way of Central Maryland, Tio G’s Empanadas at the New Lexington Market or with Civic Works. So, you’re telling me BOPA, with all its resources, couldn’t even plan the day of service for us? We had to plan it ourselves — nothing sponsored, just vibes and MLK quotes?
Many of us as artists and organizers and probably Mayor Scott and the City Council have had a watchful eye on BOPA since a string of long budget hearings last summer in which city leaders voiced discontent with the agency for canceling the Inner Harbor fireworks displays in 2020 and 2021 and canceling Artscape. We noted the Baltimore City Council withheld $196,000 from the BOPA fiscal year 2023 budget after Sawyer could not fully explain how BOPA spent money originally allocated for Artscape in 2020 and 2021.
The popular and well-attended Baltimore Book Festival, which had been an annual fixture in the Mount Vernon neighborhood, is no longer featured separately on the BOPA website. It has been folded into a hybrid Light City Baltimore, which was launched in 2016.
BOPA, which operates as Baltimore’s film office, has also been criticized for giving inadequate notice to city residents about the arrival of film crews in their neighborhoods
I am among the Baltimore artists who fear that arts events and organizations might be in danger this year and for years to come after what has transpired in Baltimore’s arts ecosystem. I was always secretly hoping somewhere deep down in my soul that BOPA’s attempts at truncating, rescheduling, canceling, expanding and rebranding all the festivals they are responsible for were not just confusing to me alone. It was nice to feel that Mayor Scott had our backs both as Baltimore City residents and as artists. It’s hard to speak up as a freelancer when you rely on organizations such as BOPA to get paid.
If you ask me, Baltimore’s arts infrastructure and its integral anchor institutions have been green around the gills for much longer than the onset of the pandemic, when many events began facing cancellations. I, like many artists and residents of Baltimore, was taken aback to hear that the parade had been canceled because we knew the lapse couldn’t be pandemic-related.
BOPA is not just responsible for memorable events, but for awarding more than a half-million dollars to artists and arts organizations in grants, prizes and stipends in most years, according to documents including its annual report for fiscal year 2021. I used to rely on organizations such as BOPA for its periodic events and the need for cultural producers, production assistants and project coordinators to pay my bills. Those events haven’t been happening.
What if, instead of holding the funds that BOPA didn’t use to produce events such as Artscape in the past two years, we invigorated the arts ecosystem with more grant-making? It could be a source of unrestricted funds for artists to feel supported every month outside of whenever Artscape is going to happen. Let the artists in the city plan it. Maybe more of us would be able to afford vendor booths without sacrificing half a month’s rent.
Surely there’s money somewhere to help offset the insane fees typically associated with participating in Artscape if you’re a seller. Some re-allocation of BOPA’s funds could be happening. Here’s an idea: Trusted organizers and artists could host listening sessions with artists to hear from everyone who cares about festivals such as Artscape or the Brilliant-City-Book-Lightscape hybrid monster of a festival.
The blame for what’s happening in the arts ecosystem or with memorable events in the city can’t sit squarely on the shoulder of one person or one organization. Even with the head of BOPA’s resignation, this can’t be the last move to address the needs of arts and culture in Baltimore City. We need answers to determine what’s going to happen to Baltimore’s arts, culture and community events scene next.
Alanah Nichole Davis, a writer, artist and alumnus of Maryland Institute College of Art, works as a freelance communication and design consultant. She lives in Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood with her family.