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Benesch aims to put JCC's Gordon Center 'back on the map'

ArtMoviesTelevision IndustryDownton Abbey (tv program)The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore

Lord and Lady Crawley, the Earl and Countess of Grantham, made an appearance. So did their daughters, the ladies Mary, Edith and Sybil, along with Carson, the butler, and assorted lady's maids, valets and footmen. When fans of "Downton Abbey" were invited to masquerade as their favorite character on the hit television series, 500 people showed up at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts, dressed from haute to humble.

On a wintry afternoon in February, Randi Benesch sat in her office at the Jewish Community Center Owings Mills and talked about the event. Held the previous month, in January, it was co-sponsored by Maryland Public Television, the Public Broadcasting Station that airs the series, and the Gordon Center, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., located on the JCC Owings Mills' campus.

There was no charge for the evening, a stipulation of the British Broadcasting Company that produces the series. Still, even though it was free, the Gordon Center was packed with a "sold-out" crowd in the dead of winter, no mean feat.

"Partnering with local arts organizations expands both their and our audiences," said Benesch, a 36-year old wife and mother who lives in Ellicott City. "We want more involvement with the community. We want to be the go-to place for the arts not only in Baltimore County but beyond."

As ambitious as that sounds, the JCC of Greater Baltimore is counting on Benesch to pull it off. In July of 2012, the JCC, an agency of the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, hired her with the title of managing director of arts and culture.

This newly created position gives Benesch oversight not only of the Gordon Center, but of all arts activities at both the Owings Mills and Park Heights JCCs, from the arts component in the preschools to its two art galleries.

"It's a new approach, to work collaboratively and holistically with all the JCC departments," says Benesch, whose operating budget for the JCC and the Gordon Center is about $700,000 per year.

At the Gordon Center, her first full year of programming is the 2013-2014 season, and the results are encouraging. Judging by attendance so far, she expects over 22,000 patrons for the season, compared with an average annual attendance of 10,000 to 15,000 in past years.

The Gordon Center opened in 1995 as a 550-seat "presenting" theater. In theater-speak, that means the center presents pre-packaged shows, versus a "producing" theater that puts on its own shows.

No one is saying the Gordon Center wasn't a success before Benesch. An annual Jewish film festival was highly popular. A series of concerts by classical guitarists often sold out. But with the approaching retirement of the original and longtime executive director, Nancy Goldberg, it was time to rethink the venue.

"The opinion was that the JCC was not identifying and maximizing what the community needed in an arts and culture program," says Thomas D. Kohn, an attorney and JCC board member who chaired the 2009 task force formed for that purpose.

Meetings with the community, local arts groups and potential partners followed. Two years later, in 2011, the task force recommended, and the JCC board agreed, to consolidate the arts and culture programs under one umbrella and to expand the Gordon Center beyond its existing programming.

"I've come full circle," said Benesch, an Owings Mills native who attended the local public schools, referring to the Gordon Center's location. A college degree in theater led to administrative and fund-raising jobs at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Columbia Festival of the Arts and, most recently, Center Stage in Baltimore.

Benesch is working to enhance arts activities at the JCCs. This summer, local professionals will teach an arts camp for first- to fifth-graders. In collaboration with the Maryland Dance Alliance, more than 300 dance students will spend the day at the JCC, taking classes and giving performances.

She is coordinating a months-long celebration of dance with the Baltimore County Commission of Arts and Sciences. Dance troupes will perform at the Gordon Center, give classes at the JCC and interact with students in the county public schools.

"We have a vision of bringing dance to Baltimore County," Fronda Cohen, commission director, says of the partnership with the Gordon Center, its first. "Randi has reinvigorated programming there. It adds to the arts venues in the county."

Likewise, Rick Lore, Maryland Public Television's vice president of development, praised Benesch for the "Downton Abbey" evening. "We had talked about possible collaborative ventures and this opportunity came up," says Lore, who worked with Benesch on two such events, in 2013 and 2014.

"We had such a great time the first year, we did it again," he says. "People came in incredible costumes. We gave out prizes."

Benesch talks about other future collaborations, from a comedy night with Creative Alliance to a 50th anniversary celebration for Center Stage. Up next are the 26th annual Jewish Film Festival that will run March 20 through April 10. March 30 brings the aforementioned Comedy Night with MODI.

"I am expanding the variety and quality of programming," Benesch said. ""I want to put us back on the map."

For information about upcoming events at The Gordon Center for the Performing Arts, go to http://www.gordoncenter.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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