Mount Vernon frames cultural montage Institution leaders meet to learn about each other, set stage for tourism push

January 25, 1998|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Mount Vernon cultural leaders met yesterday in the first step of a five-year campaign to make the picturesque central Baltimore neighborhood a destination for tourists.

Inspired by the runaway success of the Inner Harbor, neighborhood cultural institutions -- including the Walters Art Gallery, the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the Maryland Historical Society, the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Assumption, the Peabody Institute and Center Stage -- joined forces last year to create the Mount Vernon Cultural District.

"It's intended to create a sense of the whole as opposed to the parts," said Constance Caplan of the Baltimore Community Foundation, a partner in the cause.

Yesterday's event, billed "Mount Vernon 2002," was the first gathering of the boards of directors of the six institutions. About 120 people attended presentations designed to introduce the institutions.

"This is the first big scrimmage after spring training," said Jamie Hunt, who heads the new Mount Vernon organization.

A leader of each institution went on stage at Center Stage to show or tell a story about its life.

In a spirited interchange, Jim Magruder and Irene Lewis of Center Stage discussed the tension between creating meaningful theater and meeting the bottom line.

Robert Lancelotta of the basilica, built in 1821, told the audience that the first Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States was intended to make a strong statement about freedom of religion.

The architect, Benjamin Latrobe, also designed the U.S. Capitol, he said. Whether Latrobe would be pleased with the cathedral's exterior color was unclear, Lancelotta said: "We're not so sure that battleship gray is what Latrobe intended."

Gary Vikan of the Walters noted that the gallery has the finest collection of Russian art in the United States and a comprehensive collection dating over 50 centuries. But, he said, he would like to have more "feet on the street."

Dennis Fiori of the Maryland Historical Society said that the society's collection of Americana, including the manuscript of "The Star-Spangled Banner," is one of the top 10 in the world. To evoke a sense of Baltimore's past, an actress performed a monologue of a Polish-Jewish immigrant woman working in a sweatshop.

Carla Hayden of the Pratt noted that it was the first U.S. public library system when it opened 112 years ago. The department-store design was an innovation because it brought the library to street level, she said.

The presentations ended on a futuristic note when Bob Sirota of the Peabody, the nation's oldest music conservatory, invited performer Forrest Toby to use gestures and light to conduct a "virtual orchestra" computer system.

Fiori said Baltimoreans are not as proud of their cultural heritage as they could be. "This is just as culturally rich as Boston," he said. "People look at me with three eyes when I tell them that."

As the group prepared to take a lunch break at the Engineering Society of Baltimore, Hunt urged the board members, "Look for five or six people you don't know, if that's possible in Baltimore."

In fact, he said, only 14 people served on more than one of the six boards.

Many left with a sense of energy and surprise at all that they had learned about their neighbors. "I was impressed by the seriousness of the effort," said Stephen Scott, a Walters board member. "I sense more will than I did before."

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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