THE ARTS ARE LIKE A MIXED BED OF VEGetables and flowers. Not only are they a delight to the senses, they are chock full of stuff that's good for you. And, by most measures, Maryland in 2006 produced a plentiful harvest.
A promise of bounty came in May, when the city's two largest museums -- the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum -- announced that, beginning in October, they would no longer charge admission, courtesy of private donations and a three-year, $800,000 pledge from Baltimore City and Baltimore County.
The giving continued in August, when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced that the state's budget for the arts would increase 21 percent during the current fiscal year, to a record $15.3 million. Some $12.6 million was funneled to 225 groups through the Maryland State Arts Council.
And that's not all.
Seventy-five arts groups put on 180 free performances in October and November, from puppet shows to jazz concerts, as part of the city's first Free Fall Baltimore. The festival was paid for with $750,000 in surplus city funds.
Most recently, film actress Jada Pinkett Smith agreed this month to donate $1 million to her alma mater, the Baltimore School for the Arts.
"Maryland historically has been a state that is very good to the arts," says Elizabeth Carven, deputy assistant secretary for the state Division of Tourism, Film and the Arts. "In previous years, we have ranked roughly seventh in per capita spending. This year, we should come in fifth."
Maryland had a lot to celebrate this year, from the cast and crew of the television series The Wire to the alternative hip-hop group Spank Rock to octogenarian Vivienne Shub and her one-woman show, The Cone Sister.
What follows is a salute by The Sun's arts staff to a few of the many individuals and groups who this year made up Maryland's bumper crop.
PINKETT SMITH THANKS HER ALMA MATER
Jada Pinkett Smith, who credits the Baltimore School for the Arts with giving her the skills that have made her a successful actress and singer, returned the favor in a big way this month: She gave her alma mater $1 million for its renovation and expansion program.
It is the largest gift from a graduate in the acclaimed school's 26-year history. Pinkett Smith, 35, grew up in Baltimore and graduated from the School for the Arts in 1989. Now, the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation gives grants to urban education programs.
Pinkett Smith flourished at the School for the Arts, studying not only acting but also dance, choreography and songwriting. "She had a tremendous amount of creative curiosity," said her theater teacher at the school, Donald Hicken. "She was eager to acquire new skills, and I think she found it a very stimulating place."
WITH AWARD, BARTH IS ANONYMOUS NO MORE
Frances Barth isn't exactly a household name, so there was all the more reason for the New York-based Philanthropy Advisors to pick the painter for its annual Anonymous Was A Woman Award.
The award, which carries a $25,000 cash stipend, is given to midcareer female artists in recognition of their achievements. Barth heads the Mount Royal School of Art graduate program at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Like the MacArthur "genius" grant winners, Anonymous Was A Woman recipients don't know they're being considered for the honor. So it's a nice surprise.
"I just got a phone call telling me I had won," Barth says. She plans to use the money to buy supplies and create a living space in her studio in New Jersey, from whence she commutes to Baltimore. The money will also help with travel expenses, "so it comes at a perfect moment."
LEVINSON ELECTS TO STIR POLITICAL TALK WITH FILM
A funny thing happened to Barry Levinson's political thriller-cum-comedy Man of the Year after it opened to mild business and dismissive reviews.
People kept lining up at the box office, and it kept entering the political conversation, not just on TV talk shows such as Chris Matthews' Hardball and Bill Maher's Real Time, but on the stump during a pivotal election year. Candidates echoed the movie's messages - including the need to go beyond thinking defined by red states and blue states.
Even Bobby Kennedy Jr., Rolling Stone's expert on election frauds and malfunctions, sent the Baltimore-born filmmaker a note thanking him for focusing attention on the dangers of computer voting.
About to embark on What Just Happened? - based on producer Art Linson's acclaimed memoir of Hollywood moviemaking - Levinson feels good about Man of the Year: "We made a mark with a movie that wasn't very expensive, and we made some noise in the culture."
SAYYED GAINES SHOWS HER TRUE COLORS ON BROADWAY
Most performers would be content to be a principal dancer with an internationally renowned company.
Not Bahiyah Sayyed Gaines.
These days, Sayyed Gaines, a former principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, appears in the chorus of the Broadway musical of The Color Purple.