County boasts rich arts community

Audiences respond to diverse offerings

March 20, 2005|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

The dramatic music of Broadway, the precise steps of ballerinas, the flowing brush strokes of Oriental-style painting and the echoing sounds of the Celtic harp will all be on display this spring in Howard County, where more than 100 resident groups contribute to a rich and diverse artistic scene.

As the arts community has thrived, local audiences have responded. The county's population increased by 13 percent between 1995 and 2000, but attendance at arts events increased 90 percent during that time, according to ArtsVision: State of the Arts in Howard County 2003, a report sponsored by the Howard County Arts Council.

A study last year by the nonprofit Americans for the Arts found that there were 584 arts-related businesses in Howard County, including architecture, advertising and other creative businesses in addition to museums and performing groups.

In addition, many arts organizations have built reputations that reach beyond the county's borders. On average, plays, concerts and exhibits draw 20 percent to 30 percent of their audiences from outside the county, the ArtsVision study found.

One of the most widely known venues is Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, where national acts have played in the open amphitheater for more than 35 years.

There have been continuing questions about the venue's future -- spurred by the Rouse Co.'s plans, made before the company was bought by General Growth Properties Inc. -- to enclose or possibly sell the structure. But Bethesda-based management company I.M.P Productions is booking acts for the 2005 season, starting with a performance by alternative rock band Maroon 5 next month.

Coleen West, executive director of the Howard County Arts Council, is pleased to see efforts by the community to preserve Merriweather as it is. "It is nice to see that energy and belief in the arts," she said.

Columbia is also home to two professional theater groups that draw audiences from a wider area. Toby's Dinner Theatre produces many well-known Broadway musicals, including recent shows Ragtime and Miss Saigon. Rep Stage, housed at Howard Community College, focuses on more eclectic fare.

The companies have earned a combined 11 Helen Hayes awards for excellence in Washington-area theater.

The Candlelight Concert Series brings classical musicians to Columbia from all over the world. The Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo) offers events with internationally known writers. The African Art Museum of Maryland was founded in Columbia and houses its collection there.

Renowned performers -- such as jazz artist Wynton Marsalis, ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and country singer Emmylou Harris -- come to Columbia each year for the Columbia Festival of the Arts. In addition to the high-profile groups, dozens more nonprofit arts organizations operate in the county. West said most do not have the marketing dollars to attract statewide audiences, but still work hard to build their audience bases and raise funds.

"Local groups will continue to play their hearts out, build audiences and raise money," she said.

Such groups provide ballet and modern dance performances, jazz recitals, classical and contemporary music concerts, poetry readings, adult and youth theater productions and hundreds of other artistic experiences for local residents.

Numerous for-profit art galleries and nonprofit venues -- including the Howard County Center for the Arts, Columbia Art Center, Slayton House Gallery and the HCC gallery -- offer outlets for visual artists.

Many of the county's nonprofit arts organizations were founded nearly 30 years ago, when Columbia was being built and its first residents sought to enrich the community with musical, dance, artistic and literary groups.

Today, some of those groups have to make difficult decisions about their futures as their founders -- who are often still the driving forces behind them -- approach retirement. Some groups have disbanded with the loss of their organizers and artistic leaders. But others have taken steps to ensure they will continue to grow. The Columbia Orchestra, for example, has hired a new executive director and will have its first office space this year. And HoCoPoLitSo found a new home at HCC after founder Ellen Conroy Kennedy retired after 30 years.

"One of the biggest hurdles for any arts organization is space," said Kasi Campbell, associate artistic director of Rep Stage. Her group also has benefited from a partnership with HCC. She said the college's funding of office space and other administrative items "helps us keep ticket prices affordable."

The college will offer another boost to the arts community when it completes construction of its $20 million, 77,000-square-foot Visual and Performing Arts Instructional Building. The structure, which is scheduled to open in spring 2006, will offer state-of-the-art facilities for arts instruction and several performance spaces, including a recital hall, two dance studios, a black box theater and an art gallery.

In addition to the venerable groups working to expand their reach, West said new groups are arising. The Chesapeake Shakespeare Theater, for example, is based in Baltimore, but it performs in the black box theater at Howard County Center for the Arts in Ellicott City and offers outdoor performances each year at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park.

"It is nice to see this young group trying to make headway here," West said. If more organizations follow suit, "hopefully we will see another kind of resurgence."

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