When an arts program loses its visionary

Many groups face the difficult task of finding new leaders who will do much for little pay

October 21, 2005|By SANDY ALEXANDER | SANDY ALEXANDER,SUN REPORTER

After 32 years of contemporary dance concerts, Eva Anderson Dancers -- the oldest modern professional dance company in Maryland -- will no longer take the stage.

Anderson, a 73-year-old dancer and choreographer who ran the organization out of her Columbia home, will continue to teach dance. She said the dance troupe "may occasionally do something special, but I can't keep the company all year."

Anderson's is one of several arts organizations in Howard County facing difficult transitions as their founders prepare to step down.

Many groups were founded in the 1970s, when Columbia's residents saw a need in their new community.

Those organizations that have survived for several decades have developed volunteer boards of directors, incorporated as nonprofit organizations and built budgets based on donations and grants. Most have one or more paid staff members and willing volunteers.

But some groups -- including Anderson's, the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo), the Columbia Pro Cantare and the African Art Museum of Maryland -- have relied on their founders to take on a significant amount of creative and administrative work for little pay.

They face questions about how they will find someone else to carry on after these longtime leaders are through.

When many arts groups began, "just getting the artwork out to the public was payment enough," said Coleen West, executive director of the Howard County Arts Council. Today, skilled, educated arts administrators expect a competitive salary, benefits and professional recognition.

It can be difficult for small arts groups with specialized areas of interest to build a budget that will meet those requirements.

"We have to face the fact that when a founder/director retires ... there's usually not the remuneration to find somebody else of the same quality or better," said Frances Motyca Dawson, founder and artistic director of the Columbia Pro Cantare chorus. "People get used to you doing what you love to do."

Dawson, who founded the Pro Cantare 29 years ago and uses her Columbia home as the group's headquarters, said she doesn't plan to step down any time soon. But the chorus' board of directors is preparing.

"That is the challenge ahead," she said, "to get the organization to a point where it can be given over to someone else."

Anderson said it was difficult to compete for funding with large museums and symphony orchestras. She said foundations that award grants tend to give small amounts to many organizations.

"The commercial entertainment gets most of the leisure entertainment money," she said. "There is not enough money in the area to support [arts] groups."

Doris Ligon, founder of the African Art Museum of Maryland, said she is ready to move into an advisory role after 25 years of handling many tasks at the Columbia site, from planning exhibits to taking out the trash.

"Right now, I'm doing the work of about six people," she said. "But I don't have enough money to give to one person that will do all that I do."

It can also be difficult to find a leader who will carry on the vision of the group with the same passion and commitment.

"We want to be sure [a new] person is the right person," Ligon said. "Otherwise all we worked for for the last 25 years could be lost."

Kathi Ferguson, founder of the Howard County Ballet and president for 10 years, feels the same pressure.

"I'm getting older and I have medical issues," she said, "so of course this has been brought to the forefront for me. ... The hardest part is finding people that feel as invested in it as you."

For these groups, and ones that have already made successful leadership transitions, the board of directors plays a key role.

Board members can take on management responsibilities while hiring a part-time artistic director to focus on the creative aspects, as happened with the Columbia Concert Band. Or the board can provide the organizational structure and financial means to hire artistic and administrative staff, as the Columbia Orchestra did.

The Candlelight Concert Society recently hired a new managing director and has several part-time staff members while board President Holly H. Thomas serves as artistic director.

The board of directors of HoCoPoLitSo formed a partnership with Howard Community College a year ago that gave the group affordable office space and administrative support.

The arrangement allowed founder Ellen Kennedy to give up her daily duties and move the group's offices out of her basement. Tara Hart, director of HCC's division of English and foreign languages, is the group's new managing director and works with a part-time deputy director.

"There was trepidation about losing [the group's] identity," said Hart, who now also serves on the group's board. "We're working hard to communicate to people that HoCoPoLitSo is still a distinct organization."

Despite people's efforts, an organization that has served its purpose will sometimes end, particularly if it was closely affiliated with one person's vision, West said.

For example, the Ellicott City Ballet Guild did not continue after founder Caryl Maxwell stepped down in 2002 after 28 years.

Anderson said her group chose to take on limited projects, such as making a video about its history, rather than go into debt or become defunct.

Many of her dancers continue to perform elsewhere. "I feel the work is still going on," she said.

But Dawson said the community needs to decide if it wants to let groups like Anderson's slip away.

"If [citizens] truly value their institutions ... they have to get behind them."

sandy.alexander@baltsun.com

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