Artists flourish but need support Patrons advocating more funding, better gallery, show venues

March 01, 1998|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

On a trip to New York last year, Columbia watercolor artist Nichole Hickey and her collector husband, Michael, spent a day browsing in the galleries in Soho. During the subway ride back to their hotel, Michael Hickey reached this conclusion:

The quality of the artwork in Soho was no better than what they had seen at the residents' show of the Howard County Center for the Arts.

"He said the only significant difference whatsoever that he could discern was that the price tag was four times what they were asking at home," Nichole Hickey said.

As artists prepare to gather Saturday for the Celebration of the Arts in Howard County gala, the local arts scene is by all accounts healthy, diverse and for many patrons a satisfying alternative to what Baltimore and Washington have to offer.

But like any suburban area, Howard County has to overcome assumptions that quality art doesn't exist outside of the city. And as the county's arts community matures, the need for better venues and more funding is critical, artists and art supporters say.

"People assume that because you've essentially done this as a gift from the heart these groups will somehow survive," said Frances Dawson, founder and director of the Columbia Pro Cantare, a 100-voice chorus that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. "The needs have matured. To be ongoing, we have to go up another notch."

The arts community has enjoyed impressive growth since taking root in the early 1970s. The county arts council, school system, government and community all have played major roles in creating a vibrant, professional arts scene, artists say.

"It's kind of like a well-kept secret or a tiny jewel," said Rhona Schonwald, an Ellicott City artist who does abstract painting and sculpture. "The people that know about it are well-rewarded."

For example, Columbia boasts Rep Stage, a professional theater in residence at Howard Community College that was nominated last year for three Helen Hayes Awards -- the local equivalent of the Tonys -- for the play "Broken Glass." A recent production, "Never the Sinner," is now playing off-Broadway in New York City.

The 18-year-old Toby's Dinner Theatre, run by Columbia resident Toby Orenstein, also has been nominated for a Hayes Award. Orenstein pointed out that a Toby's stage adaptation of the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" got better reviews than a rival production in Washington that was funded by AT&T Corp.

"I happen to think they're one of the finest [dinner theaters] in terms of artistic quality," said Vincent Lancisi, artistic director of Everyman Theatre in Baltimore.

In the musical arena, Columbia Pro Cantare has performed several pieces with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and has toured the Czech Republic. The Candlelight Concert Society brings in performers such as the New York Chamber Soloists and the Tokyo String Quartet, while the Columbia Symphonic Band plays a summer outdoor schedule in five counties and Baltimore City.

The African Art Museum of Maryland established itself in 1980 as one of a handful of museums devoted exclusively to African art, eventually moving from Doris and Claude Ligon's house into the historic Oakland Mansion in Columbia. The Howard County Center for the Arts in Ellicott City houses two professional gallery spaces, sponsoring up to 14 solo and group exhibitions a year.

"When people come out and see our gallery, they're amazed," said Coleen West, executive director of the county arts council. "They think we're a little community art center."

HoCoPoLitSo, the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, has held readings by poet laureates and Nobel Prize winners since its founding in the summer of 1974. The society's Irish Evening tradition, featuring Irish music and readings, has become a hot ticket.

Art supporters also point to the up-and-coming professionals who got their start in the Howard County arts scene. Film actor Edward Norton performed at Toby's Dinner Theatre as a child and participated in Orenstein's Columbia Center for the Theatrical Arts, a nonprofit group aimed at developing young people in the arts.

"He flew when I did 'Peter Pan,' " Orenstein said. "He was 8 years old."

Megan Lawrence of Columbia is appearing nightly on Broadway as Eponine in "Les Miserables." Fellow Columbian Kishna Davis, a noted opera singer, made her debut recently with the Connecticut Grand Opera and is a member of the Juilliard Opera Center. Both will appear at the Saturday gala.

"There's a lot for everybody to be proud of," Dawson said. "I think the talent is just as strong here as it is in any of the major centers."

Much of that has to do with the Howard County audience. Educated and relatively affluent, most residents have had exposure to the arts and expect a certain level of sophistication, said Rep Stage founder Valerie Costantini. They also spend a lot of time going to Baltimore and Washington for arts activities, she said.

"Their standards are quite high," Costantini said. "We had to grow to meet those standards."

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