New leaders in the spotlight at Chesapeake Arts Center

Venue hopes to attract broader regional audience

April 11, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

In the month since the board of directors ousted the Chesapeake Arts Center's longtime executive director, the Brooklyn Park cultural outpost has lost half its staff.

But inside the building, there are no signs of turmoil -- only indications that the show must go on.

In one loft-like room, a set for West Side Story awaits a paint job. In the black box theater, technicians adjust the lights for a performance the next day. The hallways are filled with flowered murals and purple floor tiles, the classrooms alive with the sounds of spinning potter's wheels and choral practice.

"Some very confident people took over and learned what needed to be learned," said Joe Vitek, one of two artists-in-residence at the center.

Vitek is talking about the two remaining staff members, office manager Dan Gugliuzza and sales and marketing coordinator Jose de la Mar. With the help of volunteer executive Robert Nichols and one technician, the pair are running the arts center with a focus on the future.

De la Mar, an actor, and Gugliuzza, a drummer, want to market the center more toward Baltimore, only three miles away. They are hoping to form alliances with other regional arts organizations, such as the Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills, to bring in national acts. They also want to focus on offering more diverse performances to attract the African-American and Hispanic communities.

"Everyone talked about us becoming a regional arts center, but our efforts focus myopically on North Anne Arundel County, and that has to change," said de la Mar, who left a high-paying job in sales to join the arts center staff. "We need to expand our demographic."

De la Mar is talking with a Baltimore restaurateur about a jazz night at the center. Ecuadorean concert pianist Washington Garcia recently performed, and this month the center will screen A Shepherd of Pure Heart, which tells the story of a black preacher.

Vitek teaches four ceramics classes and is looking to expand his department. Meanwhile, board members have said they would like to expand the resident artists program, which brings in rent and class fees.

De la Mar and Gugliuzza acknowledge that the center's location is a challenge, and that marketing it as "Maryland Hall North" wasn't helping them expand their base beyond area communities. The center has about 1,000 members, each paying $35 or less a year and most living in Linthicum, Pasadena and Brooklyn Park.

"We would like to have a big lighted sign, but we don't have the money right now," Gugliuzza said.

Money has been tight at the center for several months and, some have speculated, was one of the reasons the board fired Wayne Shipley, the center's longtime director. Shipley, who helped transform the once-dilapidated middle school complex into the arts center, was a former teacher without a background in finance.

Just weeks before the board fired Shipley, center operations director C.J. Crowe resigned. She said she and Shipley had different visions for the center but many of their disagreements centered on finances.

The center is temporarily saving money through salaries. Although Shipley made $48,000 a year, Nichols is working for free. The center's education coordinator and technical director, both former students of Shipley's, also resigned, as did the development coordinator.

Only the technical director has been replaced, though the board is looking for a new executive director and hopes to hire one by summer.

The center has an annual budget of about $600,000 and pays a nominal charge to lease a building from the Anne Arundel County Board of Education. Theater companies lease space, which brings in some revenue, but center management said it would like to better negotiate with touring shows to bring in more money.

De la Mar and Gugliuzza say they hope the new director will be able to accomplish that.

"Wayne and C.J.'s vision did not coincide well, and you can't have two camps," de la Mar said. "We have no camps now. We have the Chesapeake Arts Center, and that's it."

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