Conflicts of Interest By Baynard Woods

Conflicts Of Interest: Untangling Light City Baltimore 2016

City Paper

“Can we really get holographic 3-D figures on the Harbor?” David Warnock asked three guests on his WYPR show “Baltimore’s Future with David Warnock,” for which his foundation was an underwriter at the time. “We could have the Ravens walking across the Harbor?”

Ray Lewis did a touchdown dance last year on one of the buildings,” said Lindsey Davis, one of the guests and organizers of Light City Baltimore, a proposed festival—vaguely described on the website as “spectacular visual arts installations—combining light, sound, and technology”—slated to take place in the Inner Harbor in March 2016. The festival is being compared to South by Southwest, the overhyped music and tech fest in Austin that was cool a decade or so ago. The other two guests, Brooke Hall and Justin Allen, also run What Weekly magazine and What Works Studio, an advertising and branding firm, which represents Warnock.

“That’s amazing,” Warnock said, without disclosing his relationship with What Works Studio.

That was back in January 2014, when Warnock, Hall, and Allen were regularly tooting each others’ horns. Not only did What Works list Warnock as a client, but What Weekly wrote about the Warnock Foundation and the Warnock Foundation included Light City in its Innovation Journal, just as it gave them a grant in March 2014.

If Warnock’s show and What Weekly aren’t really journalism, then this isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. Warnock did not return my calls before press time, but it seems clear that he, like What Weekly, is all about promoting what he thinks is good for the city. So they promote each other.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I’ve got my own conflicts of interest when it comes to What Weekly (which I wrote for in 2010) and Allen and Hall, to whom we awarded “Best Bad Big Squeeze for a Good Cause” in 2012 when their video to promote What Weekly was a ridiculous noir knockoff about their own love affair, not about “documenting the Baltimore renaissance.” On the Startup Soirée podcast, Hall claimed her hero is mulleted Virgin brand monster Richard Branson, and said, “When you walk around Mount Vernon, it’s like you’re in Europe, you know? Then you go two blocks away and you’re like ‘Whoa, get me out of here.’”

To me, that whole condescending attitude about changing a place and “rebranding” a place and being scared to be two blocks away from Mount Vernon is disgusting and scary. But that’s what these people are: They are branders. And they have every right to be, but I just don’t trust that stuff. It is the reverse side of “corporations are people”—turning people into corporations, perfect neoliberal subjects. And, as Technical.ly Baltimore reported, the organizers of Light City see it, primarily perhaps, as a way to “brand” the city (it’s fascinating to go back to Tom Scocca’s 2001 story Bal™ore about the beginning of these branding dreams. Check it out at citypaper.com/scocca).

But still, the city is all in on a new festival and it’s important to look at how that came about.

Bill Gilmore, the executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA) which is now running the event, explained how it happened. He said he first talked with Allen and Hall at Artscape last July.

“They had been pitching Light City for well over a year and we certainly had heard about it but had not participated in any brainstorming or anything like that,” Gilmore says. “They  came to us because of the realization they needed a nonprofit, BOPA, involved. They had formed an LLC, a for-profit, to run Light City.”

In October the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge—a competition in which the soda-hating NYC billionaire-cum-mayor would award a million bucks to a project that would transform “urban spaces with dynamic public art”—was announced. BOPA was going to take care of organizing Baltimore’s submissions, setting up a public presentation, and selecting a panel of jurors, who would deliver recommendations to the mayor’s office, which would make the final decision.   

“We hadn’t formalized anything yet with Brooke and Justin and the Light City team, even though we had been in discussions, there was no understanding in any way,” Gilmore says of the timing of the Bloomberg challenge. The conversations were, however, far enough along that he wondered,  “Is this going to look bad if they apply to be considered?” Ultimately, however, he decided that “it wouldn’t be fair for them not to be able to apply.”

Gilmore says there were eight applications, though only four “that really met the guidelines of what Bloomberg was looking for. . . The criteria was specific, temporary public art.”

The four groups were FORCE, the feminist art group which hacked Victoria Secret’s website a couple of years ago and has been working on a monument for survivors of rape; the performance-art group LabBodies; Section 1, the proposed public graffiti park; and Light City.

I talked to two jurors who both described the private deliberations as intense. 

“None were inclusive enough to embrace the diverse aspects of a citywide celebration,” says Jann Rosen-Queralt. “In each of the four finalists’ proposals they had identified a particular constituency which needed a broadening because of the size of the city.” 

Another juror, Tim Nohe, had some questions about the Light City project. “I didn’t see the same sort of clarity of artistic vision in the lights project,” he says. “It’s easy to connect the artists and the vision and the throughline of the artistic scope [in the other projects] because they have a track record. You know them and their work well. But that’s something I couldn’t see in the lights project.”

This sentiment has been echoed by many others in the arts community who wish to remain anonymous because they fear for future funding if they criticize the festival: Out of the four finalists, Light City was the only project which did not actually involve artists who were currently making art work.

Ultimately, Light City and FORCE were the two that were selected and sent to the mayor’s office. On Dec. 3, it was announced that Light City had been chosen to represent Baltimore in the competition. The mayor’s office has not returned numerous calls regarding the process they used to make a determination between the two (trying to reach them, I learned that Caron Brace, the mayor’s former press liaison, is no longer working for her, though her departure has not been formally announced; Kevin Hart, who is now filling the role, has a full voicemail box so I couldn’t leave messages, and my half-dozen calls to the press office resulted in no answers—we miss you, Caron).

On Dec. 11, a week after Light City was selected to represent the city in the Bloomberg Challenge, which it did not win, Gilmore asked BOPA’s board “if Light City could come under the umbrella” and become a BOPA-sponsored festival. The board approved.  It would have been a great move had Light City won the million dollars, but on March 5, when the finalist cities were announced, Baltimore was not among them.

Still, there has been a lot of energy surrounding the project—though not as much, it seems, as the organizers have claimed. The BBJ quoted festival organizers talking about BGE, the energy company, as a potential sponsor (organizers told the BBJ they were engaged in “pretty intensive conversations”), but the aptly named Rachael Lighty, a spokesperson for the company, denied any such intense conversations, saying they have not been confirmed as a sponsor and directing me to the festival organizers to see where they got the information. None of the festival organizers returned requests for comment.

Talking about sponsors and performers that haven’t signed on seems to be part of the festival’s MO. We laughed a bit when we saw the organizers talking about Animal Collective and Future Islands to The Sun a couple of weeks ago, but on their brochures they have Lady Gaga, Jack White, Macklemore, The Roots, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, and numerous other unconfirmed bands listed as performing, including the late Joe Cocker, who would surely need a lot of help from his friends to perform posthumously (a number of the artists’ names are spelled wrong as well, such as “Skirllex” and “Goyte”). They also list Intel, Microsoft, Google, and nine other corporations, which, a small note at the bottom indicates, are “not actual sponsors.”

Light City, which is expected to cost $4 million, has raised some money. Visit Baltimore has reportedly given the festival $250,000. Visit Baltimore would not comment when I asked them about the relationship between this money and What Works Studio, which lists them as a client. But Tracy Baskerville, of BOPA, which is also listed as a client, explained that BOPA has a contract with What Works to redesign the festival’s website and to make a logo. “They are paid for their services, because they are no longer Light City,” Baskerville says. 

Under BOPA leadership, the festival is reaching out to the public for comment. Sean Michael Kenny, a light artist (and also an account executive at Patuxent, which, like City Paper, is owned by the Baltimore Sun Media Group), attended one of the public meetings and said they were all very receptive to his suggestions regarding the kind of light art that would be good to include. There will be further public meetings. Because it seems like this sort of Inner Harbor Spectacle is the way the city wants to go, as many people as possible should attend and offer their input so that it won’t subtly transform from Light City to White City under the influence of people who get two blocks from Mount Vernon and say “Whoa, get me out of here,” and so you don’t say the same thing when you wander down to the harbor next March.    

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