Carroll's artists drawn to new home

Plans for arts center receive rave reviews from community

April 01, 2001|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

When Sandy Oxx showed off plans for the new home of the Carroll County Arts Council to members of the arts community last fall, she expected nearly unanimous approval.

After all, area visual artists and performers had long hoped for a space where they could paint, sculpt, rehearse, teach and hold shows, concerts and plays, and the former Carroll Theater on Main Street in Westminster seemed like the perfect place.

Instead, the 100 people who gathered for a community forum on the $660,000 project were filled with suggestions about what the multipurpose arts space needed: a theater with 300 seats, not 200 as proposed; more gallery space; classrooms with natural light and a bigger backstage.

"Our preliminary plan was thrown in the trash after that," joked Oxx, the arts council's executive director.

The latest plans to transform the grungy art deco movie theater downtown into a $1.4 million center for the arts were unveiled this week to the praise of Carroll artists.

The 14,000-square-foot Carroll Arts Center will feature two galleries - one for group shows and a second for solo shows - a 264-seat theater, a 3,000-square-foot second-floor expansion and a 640-square- foot backstage addition. The building's original marquee will be restored and crowned with neon.

"This is so cool. I can't believe it," said Suzanne Mancha, a Manchester painter and art teacher who has followed the arts council through homes ranging from a former broom closet at an area school, to the Davis Library building, to the current 1,400-square- foot space in the basement of the Winchester Exchange building on East Main Street. "This is going to be a permanent place. That's what we've been needing."

Barbara Schnell, president of the Carroll County Artists Guild, agreed. In September, Schnell said she was concerned that the project favored the performing arts over the visual arts in its distribution of space. The Hampstead painter was happy to see the addition of a downstairs gallery space. "Now it seems more concrete," she said.

Oxx said the suggestions of Carroll artists made a difference. "It's made it a better plan all around," she said. The 1928 building was purchased in June from the Church of the Open Door by the city of Westminster with $310,000 in state Program Open Space funds allocated by the Carroll commissioners. The city will own and maintain the building. The arts council will be the building's sole tenant.

Westminster Mayor Kenneth A. Yowan sees the project as critical to the revitalization of the city's west end. "It's a very exciting project, and it's going to be a beautiful addition to that block," he said. "Many of us have long dreamed about acquiring and renovating that theater, because we've seen what can be done in other cities and towns around the state like Hagerstown and Easton," Yowan said.

Established in 1969, the Carroll County Arts Council has 1,000 members and a $200,000 annual budget. The group, which holds art classes, sponsors shows and trips, and provides grants and scholarships to students and arts organizations, is funded through state, county and municipal government and though private donations.

The arts council has raised 67 percent of the money needed to pay for the renovations and the purchase of the Carroll Theater. To raise the rest of the money, about $534,000, the group began a fund-raising campaign last week. Contributors can buy a theater seat for $250 to $1,000 or - for a gift of $2,500 or more - have their names added to a permanent donor plaque in the lobby. The arts council has been authorized by the state to offer state tax credits to business and corporate donors.

Mark Pohlhaus, president and chief executive officer of Westminster Union Bank and vice president of the arts council's board, is chairman of the fund-raising campaign.

Oxx said all donations, no matter how small, are appreciated. "We're not just looking for $5,000 gifts; we're looking for $10 gifts," she said.

The arts council and the city are waiting to hear the fate of a $364,000 bond bill they requested from the state to help pay for the project.

The plans by project architect Beck, Powell & Parsons must be reviewed by the state and other parties before work can begin.

Depending on approval of the plans and fund-raising success, renovations could begin as soon as this fall, and could be completed by spring of next year.

But the job won't be complete once the arts center has been created, Oxx said. The center will be a success if people use it.

"We're not building this to put on our own shows," Oxx said. "We really want the community not only to contribute to the arts center, but to use it and attend the happenings there once it's open."

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