Center for the Arts celebrates 10 years of bringing culture to the community HOWARD COUNTY DIVERSIONS

November 19, 1993|By Patrick Hickerson | Patrick Hickerson,Contributing Writer

The time was when Ronald Reagan was still in his first term as president, the Orioles and Redskins were tops in their respective sports and Howard County was closing under-used schools.

One closing a decade ago enabled an informal, 2-year-old organization called Howard Arts United to move into the vacant Rockland Elementary School in Ellicott City and re-name it the Rockland Arts Center, which later became the Howard County Center for the Arts.

Two years later, Howard Arts United became the Howard County Arts Council and in 1987 was granted the power to distribute money to county groups. By 1991 it was providing grants to Baltimore organizations, as well.

The arts council will celebrate the center's 10th anniversary Sunday with the opening of two exhibits and an open house.

Before arts and cultural grants were distributed by the arts council, the county funneled money through the Department of Recreation and Parks.

"Arts were thought of as an alternative to baseball. It was no way to develop an arts program," said Howard County Arts Council Executive Director Mary E. Toth.

Ten years later, the arts council can boast a budget of a half million dollars, a membership of 6,000 with 13 independent artists and three organizations that sublet space at the center.

The Howard County Arts Council announced grants last month totaling $198,020 to 24 area arts and cultural organizations, including Howard County institutions such as Candlelight Concert Society, Columbia Pro Cantare and Kinetics Dance Theatre.

Ms. Toth describes the local arts council trend that began in the mid-'70s as encouraging "arts at the community level" to the point that it is in everyone's lives and becomes ordinary.

"Without community arts, Kinetics would get to a point where they would have to move to a metropolitan area, preferably New York City," Ms. Toth said. "Now the major arts organizations, like Alvin Ailey, come into the community to expand their audience. That never happened 20 years ago."

Ms. Toth said that school closings that resulted from declining enrollment at Rockland and Faulkner Ridge elementary a decade ago forced members of Howard Arts United to decide whether they wanted to move into the space and open an arts center.

"The option came up more quickly than organizationally we were ready," said Ms. Toth.

She credited Art Theisen, a Columbia businessman and board member of Howard Arts United, with convincing fellow board members to make the change.

"He said 'what you do is pick up your typewriter and put it down in one of those offices, and the worst that would happen would be to pick it up and leave.' It seemed like an enormous step at that time," she said.

The center's director for its first year, Wendy Bush Hackney, established a newsletter and sublet studios to independent artists and art organizations.

A year after the center opened, Dottie Fried, Stephanie Simmons and Keith Nichols brought a dance floor that was about to be scrapped by Towson State University and created the Kinetics dance troupe.

Kinetics was followed by the National Quilt Association and Piano Perspectives as art organizations that reside at the center.

Ms. Toth, who took over as executive director in 1986, said the art council's strengths are in its business and education partnerships, the center itself and ArtsVision 2001, a 10-year plan for the arts and culture in Howard County.

Completed in April 1992, ArtsVision 2001, which included a survey of 700 county residents, was one of the first attempts in the country to assess what taxpayers wanted from their arts council.

"That hasn't been done in the state of Maryland before," Ms. Toth said. "It got us out of the opinion business. . . . We're out of the business of just saying 'arts are good for you.' It was a way to get a sense of what the art community needs and what the people would support."

The center's 33-year-old building is set for a $450,000 renovation next spring. Carla L. Dunlap, director of programming and facilities, said the plans include improvements to the theater and galleries so they have less of an institutional and elementary educational look.

Sunday's festivities are noteworthy for having student and professional exhibits opening at the same time.

"Art Howard County 1993" is a juried exhibit of 31 works by artists who live or work in Howard County. Around 240 works by 66 artists were submitted for the competition that was juried by Stephen Lee Lanier, executive director of the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts in Wilmington.

More than $1,000 in prize money was at stake in the competition, with half awarded to Best in Show winner Felicia Belair-Rigdon for "Creator: Life Stories," a mixed-media collage.

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