Major arts and cultural institutions that will share city neighborhoods with September’s Artscape festival have delivered a letter to Mayor Brandon Scott, raising concerns about what they described as a lack of preparation and the possibility the festival could encroach on their plans.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, The Lyric Baltimore, the Maryland Institute College of Art and the University of Baltimore delivered a joint statement to the Scott administration this week, decrying the “evolving plan — or lack thereof” for the festival.

”None of us has received a detailed Artscape schedule nor a feasible operational plan for any individual element of Artscape,” such as traffic plans, the organizations wrote in a release.

Artscape has not been held since 2019. The pandemic shuttered the massive event in 2020 and 2021, and in 2022, the festival’s producer, the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, said arts lovers would need to wait another year for the multiday event to return.

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Artscape is usually hosted in July. At a press conference last fall, BOPA staffers presented a new vision for the festival’s return from its three-year hiatus. Organizers originally said the festival would run from Sept. 13 to 17; they later changed the dates to Sept. 22-24 to avoid a conflict with Rosh Hashanah, one of the most important Jewish holidays.

The BSO, MICA, UB and the Lyric, which are based in Midtown-Belvedere and Bolton Hill, where the festival traditionally has a large footprint, noted that BOPA staffers said Artscape’s expansion throughout more neighborhoods this year would create “potentially crippling immediate and long-term impacts of a less than successful outcome on the City, the festival attendants, the neighborhood, and our respective institutions.”

The institutions also noted that they are unable to accommodate BOPA’s “request of complimentary usage of their respective facilities.” The BSO is hosting its annual gala on Sept. 23, while MICA will host a parents’ weekend and the Lyric will host several shows throughout Artscape’s run. UB has classes scheduled. The letter was first reported by The Baltimore Sun.

At a news conference Wednesday morning, Mayor Brandon Scott said he understands and appreciates the concerns, and that his office has been in communication with the institutions.

“We’re working extremely closely with BOPA to guide this process,” he said. “We’re fully committed to making sure that Artscape 2023 goes off without a hitch, but able to be also one of the most successful that we’ve had in the city.”

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But when asked whether BOPA or the mayor’s office were in charge of planning the festival, Scott declined to give a definitive answer and repeated that his team is working closely with BOPA.

Mayor Brandon Scott speaks at a press conference in City Hall on July 19, 2023. (Dylan Thiessen/The Baltimore Banner)

A BOPA spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In their letter, the four institutions ask the city to host Artscape on North Avenue and Charles Street above I-83, which would put tents and attendees at a distance from the Mount Vernon institutions, which are clustered on Mount Royal Ave.

“There is no basis yet for us as major event partners to have faith in a ‘traditional’ Artscape event taking place on its ‘traditional’’ Mount Vernon footprint,” they wrote.

They also asked organizers not to plan a main stage performance at the MICA Station building on Sept. 23, to avoid conflicts with the BSO Gala and Lyric events.

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The original plan was for BOPA to host the BSO on an outdoor stage, the letter continued, but stated that the BSO “remains very happy to open the Meyerhoff for Sunday’s concert, ensuring cost savings to BOPA/the Mayor’s Office while also requesting support of limited facility costs.”

Councilman Eric Costello said he had a positive meeting with some of the institution’s leaders on Tuesday and that their logistical concerns are legitimate.

“There was a request to move it to North Avenue from Mount Royal Avenue and that’s not going to happen,” he said. “But we’re going to work to address their operational needs.”

BOPA, a quasi-city agency that is funded partially through city dollars but is operated by a board of directors independent from elected officials, and its management, has been a running concern for City Council members.

Last year’s cancelled Artscape was one in a string of scrubbed events run by BOPA. The shrinking calendar and failure to answer questions about money allocated for Artscape drew criticism from City Council members, who voted in both 2022 and 2023 to withhold some city funding from the agency.

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And earlier this year, BOPA’s former CEO Donna Drew Sawyer resigned after pressure from Mayor Brandon Scott, who faulted the nonprofit for failing to produce the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade. Before her resignation, he poached BOPA staffer Tonya Miller Hall, appointing her the senior adviser for the Office of Arts & Culture in the mayor’s office.

Costello blamed BOPA’s lack of communication on Drew Sawyer, the former CEO. She was replaced on an interim basis for nearly six months by BOPA board Chair Brian Lyles. In June, BOPA announced Todd Yuhanick, a film producer and former president of a local public relations company, would serve as CEO.

Costello said Yuhanick has hit the ground running “and done an incredible job with a very challenging set of circumstances.”

Emily Sullivan covers Baltimore City Hall. She joined the Banner after three years at WYPR, where she won multiple awards for her radio stories on city politics and culture. She previously reported for NPR’s national airwaves, focusing on business news and breaking news.

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