Following a spicy budget hearing that turned the spotlight back on the city’s troubled arts council, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, joined by City Council President Nick J. Mosby and City Councilman Eric T. Costello, said late Friday the city would “assess alternative options” regarding the organization’s future.

The trio, in a statement, said that evening’s budget presentation had “intensified and solidified” concerns about the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts’ ability to deliver on its mandate to serve the city’s arts community and stage citywide events. The group is city funded but run by a private board.

“Our trust in them as a zealous advocate for Baltimore’s arts community, responsible steward of allocated funding and vehicle for delivering critical city funding to that community has been eroded by BOPA’s repeated inefficacy,” they said in the statement.

They also pledged to uphold BOPA’s service to the city’s artistic and creative community: “Rest assured, we remain committed to you and the preservation of arts funding,” they said.

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The city’s arts council — a nearly 40-year-old institution tasked with staging festivals, distributing grants, maintaining city landmarks and serving as the city’s film office — found itself at the center of unwanted attention again Friday night. Members of a City Council committee tasked with reviewing its budget for the year beginning July 1 grilled the organization about its unsuccessful attempt to trademark Baltimore’s premiere festival and pay a severance of at least $10,000 to its former CEO, who resigned in January. The total amount of the severance package has not been disclosed.

Leading the questioning, Costello, the chair of the Ways and Means Committee, noted during the nearly hourlong hearing that, while he had “grave concerns” about the organization’s constitution, he found a proposal from City Councilman Zeke Cohen to cut $1 million from the troubled arts institution “categorically irresponsible.”

Cohen, who announced his bid this year for City Council president, made the call this week and said he would hope to reallocate those funds toward the city’s library system. Costello said such a cut “would obviously have a catastrophic effect on the city’s arts community,” and that was seconded by Mosby, who said creatives in the city don’t get enough support as it is.

The City Council’s budget committee will consider Cohen’s change when it votes on the budget this month.

About an hour after the hearing, Costello and Mosby, in the statement, vowed to seek out alternatives to BOPA, though the statement didn’t put forward another name. Representatives of BOPA did not respond late Friday to a request for comment.

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The quasi-governmental entity, which operates as a nonprofit, spent much of the night on the defensive. Costello and other committee members questioned its choice to hire a search committee to find both an interim CEO and a permanent CEO this year, for its decision to allow board chair Brian D. Lyles to serve as interim CEO in addition to his chairman position, and for using outside legal counsel to file the Artscape trademark application.

City Councilman James Torrence, leaning on his legal background, noted that such efforts can not only prove costly but also time consuming — time that he argues could have been spent staging Artscape. City Councilwoman Phylicia Porter knocked BOPA for failing to list its latest filing with the Internal Revenue Service on its website.

The budget hearing provided a window into an organization that short-circuited into chaos at the start of the year when it announced it would not stage the city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade, despite its contractual obligation to do so. Then-CEO Donna Drew Sawyer, under pressure, said city officials from the mayor’s office jointly made the decision, and Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott shot back with a call for her resignation. She stepped down days later, and the city rushed to stage a parade in just a few days.

The Baltimore Banner, in a public records request, later uncovered that the mayor’s office knew as early as November 2022 that the 2023 parade would not be held. Still, the mayor’s office and members of the City Council had already been critical of the organization’s leadership for failing to stage Artscape in summer 2022 and initially scheduling the 2023 festival to conflict with a Jewish holiday.

At points, Lyles said he could not recall certain details that Costello argued a dual board chair and interim CEO should know. For example, Lyles said he did not remember if the executive board members approved Sawyer’s severance package during a video call or an in-person meeting. Lyles also initially said members of the board weren’t aware of the trademark request, though they are responsible for approving expenditures greater than $10,000, which Torrence noted a trademark request filing likely cost.

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Lyles also appeared to issue an apology on behalf of the organization, saying at the start of the hearing that he knew BOPA’s reputation had been badly damaged and many had lost faith in it. He said the organization would be willing to incorporate new rules that forbid it from seeking trademarks on city intellectual property again.

Representatives of the mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment. The preliminary fiscal year 2024 budget proposes giving nearly $2.7 million in general funds to BOPA, plus an additional $111,853 for the Bromo Seltzer Tower general fund.

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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