A day after the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts announced it would not be holding its annual winter parade honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mayor Brandon Scott has demanded the resignation of the organization’s CEO, Donna Drew Sawyer.
His demand, made in a statement to The Baltimore Banner, comes after the city’s publicly funded events producer shifted blame to the mayor’s office, arguing it would not make a decision about “mayoral events” on their own.
“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 letter to BOPA’s board shared with The Banner.
He went on to say, “I will not fund BOPA in the upcoming fiscal year and I will not renew BOPA’s contract when the current one expires if Ms. Sawyer is not removed by January 15, 2023.″
In a “clarifying statement” released Friday afternoon, BOPA — billed as the city’s arts council, events center and film office — said it produces civic events at the request of the mayor. It said it did not have the authority to make “unilateral” decisions about canceling such events, but “will continue to provide enthusiastic support of the mayor’s civic events whenever we are called upon to do so.”
BOPA announced Thursday it would cancel the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade, instead encouraging Baltimoreans to participate in a “day of service” to honor the civil rights activist.
Monica Lewis, a spokesperson for Scott, told The Banner on Thursday that the decision to cancel the parade was made jointly by BOPA and the mayor’s office.
“We love having parades to honor holidays and people who have made contributions to society, but we believe that the best way to honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is to encourage people to do what is necessary to help others and their communities get to a better place,” Lewis said.
The quasi-governmental organization operates with a combination of city funding and private donations and hosts yearly citywide events, festivals and celebrations.
BOPA’s slowdown of 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.
U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, whose Baltimore district includes the parade route, issued a rare critical statement about the city agency Thursday night, lambasting BOPA’s decision as “disgraceful” and “going down the wrong path.”
“It is disrespectful to tell entire communities that there won’t be an MLK parade less than two weeks before the celebration of his birthday and equally disrespectful to suggest that he can’t be celebrated through both a day of service and a community parade,” the former Baltimore City Council member said.
Artscape — the city’s largest festival, and regarded as the largest free U.S. arts festival — was canceled due to the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, and also did not run in 2022. The city gave BOPA $98,000 to operate the festival in 2020 and 2021, but Sawyer blamed organizational challenges on the pandemic, and could not explain to the committee’s satisfaction how that money was spent, despite requests for receipts.
The council’s Ways and Means committee approved a $196,000 cut from the BOPA’s budget in June, promising to restore the money through the city’s supplemental fund should the organization meet their requests.
“They’re going to have to spend the next year getting their house in order developing a board that is actually reflective of the arts community of the city, or they’re going to face a very unpleasant reality in the next budget,” Councilman Ryan Dorsey said at a budget hearing.
BOPA has yet to receive the money, said Sebastien Seydi, chief of staff to Councilman Eric Costello, who chairs the appropriations committee. Costello was not immediately available to comment.
City Councilwoman Odette Ramos, who participated in the public questioning of BOPA during last year’s budget hearings, said it has been clear for some time that the January parade would not be put on as scheduled. Constituents in her district who usually contribute and participate in the event had not been called upon, she said, and she had not seen any public messaging about its procession.
She also said Scott and his team have been helpful planning, implementing and attending public events in her district, which this year will include a book festival. Other, non-BOPA events — including the city’s annual Christmas and Halloween parades — also have gone on as scheduled, she said.
“I do think the uproar is so indicative of the trend happening with BOPA,” Ramos said.
Meanwhile, Ramos said the City Council is also waiting for more documentation from BOPA as well as evidence of its plans to host Artscape this year. “We don’t know anything about what it looks like, its location, any of that.”
In addition to staging and producing citywide events — such as Light City and the Baltimore Book Festival, which also have not run since the pandemic — the office 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-adjacent 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.
Meanwhile, despite having a target of hosting eight BOPA-sponsored events in 2021, the organization did not hold any then, 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. 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.
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.
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.