The Eubie Blake Center's years in the wilderness of Baltimore's cultural world are over, and executive director Camay Murphy couldn't be happier.
Much of the last decade has been difficult. A fire forced the center from its home at 409 N.Charles St. and into a largely incompatible space in the Brokerage. Then there were years when the center held programs at area schools but had no permanent address.
Tomorrow night, the center - officially the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center - celebrates its new home at 847 N. Howard St. with a gala opening. Murphy calls the freshly renovated building "the mother space."
"It's sort of opening up its arms to us. `Come, my wayward children,' " she says.
The center had its beginnings in the Model Cities programs of the 1970s. In 1978, it opened as Gallery 409 on North Charles Street, changing its name in 1983 to honor one of Baltimore's great native sons. It was part museum, part art gallery and part performance venue. Blake even visited and was pleased.
"Eubie liked Charles Street," says James Crockett, president of the center's board of directors. "To think that a black person in Baltimore could have a place on Charles Street was really meaningful for him."
In June 1993, an electrical fire on the gallery's second floor forced the city to close the building. The loss was devastating.
"I couldn't go near the building for a year. I just could not," says Breck Chapman, who photographed the center's life for 16 years and recently donated his material to the center. "I just didn't want to see it."
Once a home for Baltimore's arts community, the center struggled to keep a presence in the city. Every year seemed to bring another proposal.
Planners considered the Greyhound bus station on Howard Street. Then there was the idea to raze a couple of buildings at Howard and Franklin streets and renovate the Mayfair Theater. Someone suggested the Masonic Temple in the 200 block of North Charles Street. There was even talk about finding a building on North Avenue.
"We were just a mid-level venue," says Murphy, "and we really did get lost."
Her luck changed during a meeting with shop owners from Antique Row and representatives of Maryland General Hospital.
"At that time I was kind of lamenting that we couldn't get the [Mayfair] theater," says Murphy. "I don't know what happened. I think I just collapsed and laid across the table and started crying."
She left the meeting with a chance to look at a building across from the hospital. Once home to the University of Baltimore's law school and later a nurse's school for Maryland General, the 21,000-square-foot building was constructed in 1927. The four-story building has hardwood floors throughout and walls of solid brick.
"I was really carried away," says Crockett. "But looking at the limited amount of money we had to work with, I did not see how it would happen."
In 1998, the city bought the building from Maryland General for $200,000, then sold it to the center for $1. The $2.3 million renovation, largely paid with public funds and an insurance payment from the fire, continues to this day. Murphy says the center is a work-in-progress.
Supporters are still at least $1 million short of having the type of space they want, one with all the necessary accoutrements of a contemporary museum and performance center.
Soundproofing is needed for the performance space and the future practice rooms. The dance studio is waiting for the mirrors and the practice bars. At some future date, the center's directors might consider covering the exposed wood beams that line the ceiling, which could cost $500,000.
"We have a real marketing challenge to let people know where we are, to let people know what our programs are, to get back into the scene," says Murphy.
But the hardest part is over. They have a home.
"What's very exciting is that they've found a role that incorporates the performing arts and nurturing young performers," says Dennis Fiori, director of the Maryland Historical Society. "We're very excited about having a new cultural institution in the Mount Vernon area."
The historical society has been working closely with the center for future exhibits.
The center's big challenges now are to find a niche in Baltimore's crowded museum world. The state's museum of African-American history is already funded and should be completed in a couple of years. The center also needs a steady source of funding to archive its holdings and pay for programs. Such problems are not unique.