Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts chatters most lively in the late afternoon and early evening when the sun dims in high-windowed artists' studios and children stream into the old school house.
Listen:Teen boys step tentatively in tap-shoes; a pianist solos in an empty room; singers rehearse a number from "Phantom of the Opera"; two painters talk in a shadowed studio; a dance teacher beats a tone-box rhythm as a girl strides like a fawn across a gym floor.
"When you walk in that building, don't you get kind of a thrill?"
Beth Whaley poses the question. She was there when Maryland Hall was nothing more than a vacant old high school, vandal prey and pigeon roost. Whaley is the champion of the arts who teamed with painter Joanne Scott in the early 1970s to find a place where the arts might thrive in Annapolis. Dancers, painters, sculptors, photographers, singers, actors, concert musicians and students of all these pursuits now find a home on Constitution Avenue and Greenfield Street.
Maryland Hall turned 10 years old in 1990. Many of the old voices remain, many have moved on, many more have joined the chorus.
Three-year-old Micayla Weissberg stands on a chair in the second-floor hallway peeking into the dance studio door window at her sister, Ariel, who at the moment is dressed in a leotard and doing a conga line dance with 16 other girls. The girls are all between 4 and 5 years old, all taking a class in creative movement -- an introduction to dance -- with instructor Barbara Easter, who by all reports has the patience of Job.
"We had heard good things about Barbara Easter, that she's good with children," says Anita Weissberg, of Arnold, the girls' mother."And we found that to be true."
She holds in her arms 9-month-old Alexandra Weissberg, alas, "a little young for ballet," her mother says.
Weissberg stands outside the studio with several other women, all waiting for their children. It's a familiar scene at Maryland Hall in the late afternoon and evening.
Martha Selonick waits for her 5-year-old daughter, Helen. She peeks in at the 17 girls, who are bouncing their way through a simplified scene from "The Nutcracker." She offers a quick appraisal of Easter.
"That woman must have nerves of steel."
Selonick, of Crownsville, said she chose Maryland Hall for her daughter's dance class because "at least you know this is reputable. Also, I think it's good to support an endeavor like this."
The support has grown steadily. Since 1987 the number of classes has grown and class registration has jumped 41 percent to 2,736. The schedule includes classes in fine arts, photography, print-making, dance for children and adults and music. The Hall is home to 19 artists-in-residence, along with the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, the Annapolis Chorale, the Ballet Theater of Annapolis, Maryland Hall Story Theater and two art galleries. Music and voice teachers from the Peabody Preparatory in Baltimore also conduct classes at Maryland Hall.
Still, Michael R. Bailey, who will observe his first anniversary as the Hall's executive director on Feb. 12, says one of his goals is to spread the word about Maryland Hall.
"One of the things that struck me was when I came here I'd talk to people and say, 'I work at Maryland Hall.' They'd say, 'What's that?' or 'There's nothing there that interests me.' "
In an effort to raise the Hall's profile, Bailey this year launched a series of concerts that brought to the auditorium recording artists Pat Metheny, Wynton Marsalis and a group of musicians who record for the Windham Hill label. Marsalis and Windham Hill were sellouts, Metheny came 100 short of filling all 850 seats in the auditorium. Bailey looks forward to another sellout in March with Wynton's brother, jazz artist Branford Marsalis.
Bailey also says he'd like to expand the Hall's program of sending teachers from the Hall out into the community, and broaden the reach of those programs well beyond Annapolis. He's also working with the city on putting up more and bigger signs on West Street directing traffic to the Hall.
For Bailey, who has almost 20 years of experience in art administration, the problem of bridging the gap between fine art and community hit home in 1969 after he completed a bachelor of fine arts degree at the Kansas City Art Institute. He temporarily left the fine art world and joined the Army.
There, he says, "I found a world where art meant nothing." Bailey says he was struck then with the desire to "make art integral to everyday life, to the guy on the street."
Some know him as Johnny Monet. That fits.
Johnny, as in "Johnny Be Good," rock and roll -- raw, immediate. Monet, as in Claude Monet, the French Impressionist painter who showed that painting could be more than a beautiful picture displayed over a divan. It could be a way of seeing, a raw and immediate way of experiencing nature.