Advocates of long-envisioned county arts center see progress

Group says its early efforts focus on building membership

July 10, 2005|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The vision is of a campuslike complex that includes performance stages, rehearsal rooms, classrooms, galleries, a ballroom, retail stores - even a restaurant.

There is no blueprint or schematic drawing or artist's rendering for this ambitious vision, one that advocates concede is still off on the distant horizon.

But proponents of bringing a performing arts center to Harford County continue to push ahead on an effort that dates back more than two decades, convinced that the absence of such a facility is a shortcoming in an otherwise growing and vibrant county.

"This is something that's been a great idea for a long time," said Bob Titelman, a member of the Harford County Cultural Arts Board. "People have been trying to do this, but it always fails. ... It's something Harford needs desperately. We lag behind the other counties, and for us to be so far behind is an embarrassment."

On Thursday, the organization that is leading the effort - the Center for the Visual and Performing Arts Inc. - convened a meeting in the Abingdon library to brainstorm ideas for the center and how to make it a reality.

"In this first year, we hope to build support," said Sallee Kunkel Filkins, executive director of the organization. "In the second year, we plan to complete the marketing and feasibility report. Then, in the third year, we want to get the preliminary renderings."

Although size, location and cost of an arts center are a long way off, about 50 participants at Thursday's meeting discussed what elements could make up the facility, including classrooms for a range of media - drawing, painting, photography, sculpture, pottery, animation, film, puppetry - and recording rooms and dance spaces, as well as a retail component.

"The center can't sustain itself," said Jim Butcher, president of the organization. "A really nice restaurant might be a way to draw people into the building. People may not be attending an event, but they know they are in an art center."

For decades, county artisans and arts organizations have tried unsuccessfully to establish a performing arts center.

"I'd like to take credit for this idea, but it's been in the hearts and minds of people for years," Butcher said. "But past initiatives haven't been this diverse. I think we can make it work this time."

Although efforts date to 1978, momentum stalled for several years until 1998, when members of the HCCAB wrote a strategic plan. The board distributed a Facility Needs Assessment survey to 39 arts organizations in the county and the responses were recorded in a report.

Again, there was a gap in action until January, when the Center for Visual and Performing Arts Inc. was established by Butcher, Filkins and Duke Thompson, founder of the Maryland Conservatory of Music in Bel Air.

"Sallee is the leader here really ... and she's doing a bulk of the work right now," Butcher said. "But we want to get the whole county involved. When magazines do these stories on the best places to live, they base it on best housing, shopping and they always mention the arts. The arts are fragmented here, and we want to bring it all together."

To keep costs down, Filkins said the group is using feasibility reports from other counties to guide it in the legwork for its study before hiring a market analyst to put it together.

"We don't have a lot of money to work with right now," she said. "We'll meet the operations budget for this year with a $10,000 donation. And for next year, we have $50,000 set aside in the county budget. ... But these things cost a lot of money that we don't have yet, so we're trying to do what we can ourselves."

The group hopes to gain support from a spectrum of citizens, ranging from children to philanthropists and politicians. A membership drive is planned for the Citizens for a Center for the Visual and Performing Arts. Memberships will cost $2 for children, $5 for senior citizens, $10 for individuals, $20 for a family, and up to $1,000 or more for founding members. The objective is more to raise membership than money.

"It's to show the support we have for the project to the county and the state when we go to them for money," Thompson said.

Republican state Del. Susan K. McComas said Thursday that the county is ready for a center and pledged to support the effort.

"We're really Mayberry," McComas said, alluding to the small North Carolina town on the 1960s sitcom The Andy Griffith Show. "We're the county where people have the houses with the white picket fences. We have great growth and great government. ... Getting a performing arts center would be like self-actualization for the county. We've taken care of all the basic needs, now we need to go for more."

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