A new image for College Park

October 07, 2001|By C. Fraser Smith

CAN A wealthy artist and a visionary new building allow the University of Maryland to move finally beyond the imagery of college sports?

Less boisterous than the university's many coaching icons, painter Clarice Smith officiated with grace and humility last weekend at the opening of a $120 million building named in her honor.

If the arts can compete with basketball, the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center could be the venue.

Seen by some as a cow college transformed into a football power by Curley Byrd and then to a basketball mill by Lefty Driesell, the university struggles for academic distinction.

Not yet able to claim flagship status within its own state, College Park gamely aspires to be the peer of other top-rated public universities. Its high ranking among the nation's mathematics, computer and engineering schools hasn't done the trick. It labors still under the stigma of size. Having welcomed legions of returning veterans after World War II, its reward was to become an academic Gargantua, too big and impersonal to offer quality instruction.

Efforts to change were plagued by bad luck. In the early 1990s, a national recession deprived the university of an infusion of state money promised as a cushion against downsizing.

Comes now the Smith Center, which offers the university a chance to showcase talented students and star attractions on several stages. Credit goes to a number of university promoters, including former state legislator Timothy F. Maloney and an administrator in the university president's office, Brian Darmody.

Over lunch, these two men found themselves thinking outside the box. To think creatively inside the box is rare enough.

Mr. Maloney had power as well as vision. He was then chairman of a House of Delegates committee that hands out money for construction projects.

Admirers said he carried the capital budget in his head, the better to prove, as it turns out, that all politics is local. Or that politics can improve the quality of life.

Over tuna on rye, the two men observed that College Park would be getting roughly $100 million worth of arts projects - a dance theater, a concert hall, several other buildings - over 10 years.

Wouldn't it make sense, they decided, to accelerate the schedule, putting all the projects in a single new structure? They raced back to explain their idea to William E. "Britt" Kirwan, then the university's president.

Mr. Kirwan, now the president of Ohio State University, thought it grand. He asked his son, a newly minted architect, to prepare drawings. The next Tuesday morning, Delegate Maloney, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., (a fervid Maryland alum) and President Kirwan briefed then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Always a fan of big buildings and new ideas, Mr. Schaefer told them to go for it.

What resulted is a state-of-the-art venue for performance and instruction - 10 buildings in one. The state paid $94 million and the rest came from patrons whose names, like Clarice Smith, now adorn the building and its various stages.

Last Saturday evening, several hundred guests watched the dance department perform The Rug Party, an elegantly exuberant demonstration of discipline and creativity in the center's cathedral-like main hall. They saw rollicking scenes from The Music Man, with the role of Harold Hill played by Johnny Holliday, whose voice is well known to fans of the basketball and football teams. Near the finale, the university's marching band, in full regalia, filled the aisles with drums and tubas and clarinets. At least 76 trombones played from the balconies.

Along with Clarice Smith's husband, Charles, the role of the Medici Princes was played by Alma Gildenhorn and her husband, Joseph, a former ambassador to Switzerland. The Hecht Co. and Arundel Mills paid for the gala. Here was the university partnering most profitably with the Washington area's elite.

They'll be coming back to hear the Guarneri Quartet, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, all of The Music Man, and more.

No one who sees a performance at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center should ever again think that College Park is all jump shots and extra points - or too big to be excellent.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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