Uncertainty tinges arts groups' future

Challenges: Thirty years into their existence, organizations wonder who will carry on the missions of their longtime dedicated leaders.

Howard Live

January 09, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

As many of Howard County's best-known arts organizations approach 30 years of existence, they face difficult questions about who will carry on their missions.

Often, they are driven by a director who has nurtured the group from the beginning, putting in long hours for little pay. These leaders handle the artistic, organizational and mundane responsibilities for groups they describe as being like their children.

"When a person is a founder ... they have a level of passion and commitment that is difficult to duplicate," said Milton A. Mayo, chairman of the African Art Museum of Maryland.

Groups such as the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo), Eva Anderson Dancers, African Art Museum of Maryland and Columbia Pro Cantare say that finding someone else to take on such responsibilities - and raising the funds to attract good candidates - is challenging.

At the African art museum, founder Doris Ligon has designed exhibits, acquired art, given tours and handled day-to-day tasks - from paying the bills to taking out the trash - for 23 years.

"If I could find someone that could move this museum forward with the personality that has been established, I would say, `Here it is,'" Ligon said.

But "no one is going to do it for the relatively little money I do. ... You have to come to it loving it, wanting to be part of it, seeing the possibilities and wanting to put your own signature on it," she said.

With a branch opening in Baltimore, Ligon is optimistic that she and her board will find the funding and the people to move forward.

HoCoPoLitSo also is hopeful of finding an obvious successor to founder Ellen Conroy Kennedy. But that is not likely to happen soon.

For 28 years, Kennedy has run the group as president and chief executive officer from her Columbia home out of love of literature and a desire to connect with the community.

But Kennedy and her board of directors realized that they needed to plan a transition. In September 2001, committee members looked at 31 resumes "without finding anybody they would consider perfect," she said.

"It was clear there wasn't a way to pay a market value salary or provide a working environment different than this," Kennedy said. "It would be nice if we are able to draw in somebody here in the community ... who would do it for the same reasons I did."

For now, she will continue to organize readings, educational programs and the society's local television series with the help of a part-time administrator.

Some arts groups have found that an active board of directors can play a key role in preserving a group's mission and finding people to carry it forward.

"There are steps you can take to develop infrastructure," Mayo said. "But it is something that has to evolve over a period of time."

Mayo has served on other volunteer boards and said that as an organization matures, the policy-making often shifts more to the trustees or directors, while daily duties require people with professional experience.

The Howard County Arts Council, with state and federal organizations, has been building its grant programs focusing on organizations' operating costs. It also offers board development classes to help volunteer leaders get up to speed.

"We see it as an issue," Coleen West, the council's executive director, said of the need for groups to secure future leadership. "We are afraid we will lose groups."

The departure of a leader can be the end of an organization.

After nearly 28 years, the Ellicott City Ballet Guild closed last year when founder Caryl Maxwell took a new job.

Maxwell, who was experiencing fatigue and health problems, said, "It really gave me pause, how much was I willing to sacrifice of any personal life."

A position with the National Dance Education Organization in Bethesda seemed like a wonderful opportunity to keep working in her field, she said, so she ended her Ellicott City endeavors, including the guild's public performances and a dance school with her name.

"For me, the Ellicott City Ballet Guild and Caryl Maxwell Ballet were my creations so much that it didn't seem possible to have it continue with someone else," she said.

Eva Anderson knows she will have to give up her position as head of Eva Anderson Dancers sometime soon. But as the group begins its 29th year, no successor is on the horizon.

While she feels fit to lead now, "We are looking to our dancers to fill that place," Anderson said.

The situation where one main staff person shoulders the majority of responsibility arises, she said, "because of the lack of audience and money for the arts in this area." For groups with limited funds, "there is not another choice."

Anderson said it is possible that no new leader will arise, and that the group will not be able to continue. But she takes comfort that her students have gone on to dance, teach and lead other organizations.

Her mission "may not be carried out right here, but it will be elsewhere," Anderson said.

Frances Motyca Dawson does not intend to leave her position as artistic director of Columbia Pro Cantare soon. She is the only full-time staff member and has run the organization from her Harper's Choice home for 26 seasons. But she realizes that her organization faces challenges similar to those of other organizations.

She also sees the positive side. One of the pluses of the community, she said, is that nearly 30 years ago a group of ambitious people moved to Columbia and sought to promote the arts.

"We're still motivated by [James W. Rouse's] dream," Motyca Dawson said. "We need to let people know there are still these opportunities."

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