Arts Council's home for past three years

Its facility plays a central community role in the old Carroll Theatre in Westminster

April 23, 2006|By KATIE MARTIN | KATIE MARTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Sandy Oxx joined the Carroll County Arts Council nearly a decade ago, the organization was hidden away in the basement of the Winchester Exchange Building in downtown Westminster.

Besides not being easily accessible to the community, the one-room space also had to serve as a gallery, as well as a center for a multitude of other functions.

"Summer camp took place on the floor of the gallery, and my desk was in the back corner," Oxx said.

For years, the council looked for a new home for the organization and eventually found it - the old Carroll Theatre.

When the Church of the Open Door decided to sell the building, members of the Arts Council eagerly became a partner with the city of Westminster to purchase and renovate the facility.

"The rest is history," said Oxx, the council's executive director. "It was really a perfect fit."

The approximately $1.6 million project was completed slightly more than three years ago. The refurbished building, known as the Carroll Arts Center, serves as a central location for the growing arts community in the county.

At 91 W. Main St. in Westminster, the facility is home to a 263-seat theater, several classrooms, art galleries and offices.

The brightly colored marquee outside announces the center's schedule of visual and performing arts events, including concerts, movies and theater productions.

"It has become so popular for people to rent the stage," Oxx said. "All of the rentals have allowed us to have a full schedule of events."

While groups holding cultural activities for the public have priority, the space is occasionally rented for private parties or rehearsal dinners, Oxx said.

This is the third year that Common Ground on the Hill has rented the facility for its concert series held the first Saturday of each month, said Walt Michael, executive director of the arts and music organization.

"With the advent of that theater, it made it possible for us to have a successful concert series," which was difficult to do at other facilities, Michael said. "Having a central arts facility of that quality right in town has really been wonderful."

Common Ground receives a community arts development grant from the council that provides general funding and covers rental costs to keep the concert series alive, Michael said.

With all of the activity at the center, people sometimes seem to forget there is an arts council behind it, Oxx said.

"Our job is still to give out grants, arts scholarships and loan instruments to kids who can't afford them," Oxx said. "But the building has definitely put us on the map."

The state ensures that there's an arts council in every county, but some are larger and more centralized than others, Oxx said.

While Carroll's council has existed since 1969, there were few arts facilities in the county before the renovation of the center.

But there has been a sharp increase since the Arts Council moved into the new space, said Frank Baylor, a board member. It's estimated that nearly 22,000 visitors entered the center's glass double-doors last year to see events, including 72 live performances and 39 films.

Volunteers are at the center every day, assisting with jobs such as greeting visitors, operating projection equipment and cleaning up after movies.

"It has grown faster than I've ever imagined," Oxx said.

In addition to being a cultural center, the facility has created a boom for the downtown area, Baylor said. He recalled eating at a restaurant on Main Street after attending an opening at the center last fall and seeing about 20 other people there who had attended the same event.

"I look at it as an anchor on one end of Main Street, and I think it already has helped economic development on that side of town," Baylor said.

Built in 1937, the Carroll Theatre had 850 seats with admission prices as low as 15 cents. At a later time time, the front of the building also was home to a beauty parlor and a loan office.

Sandy Ferguson said it was a place she took her children to see movies.

"I grew up in Westminster, so I remember that building when it truly was the Carroll Theatre," said Ferguson, an Arts Council board member. "I went to see movies there when I was a child and a teenager, ... and so it is very special to our family that the building is being used for such a worthwhile purpose now."

Three of the old red Carroll Theatre seats sit in back of the dressing room behind the stage in the arts center. The dressing room, which was added during renovations, also features a red cinder-block wall covered with black signatures.

"Every person who has performed here has signed the wall," Oxx said. "It's amazing how full it is. It's kind of a neat chronicle."

Above the ceiling of the old theater, flooring was added to increase space, Oxx said.

The upstairs now has an "orange" and a "blue" classroom, which are used for after-school programs, summer arts camp and music practices. A smaller gallery also usually features student artwork and provides an open space for yoga classes.

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