Celebrating five decades of championing the arts, the founders of the Carroll County Arts Council, those who have carried on the mission, city officials and members of the arts community recently shared their memories of the CCAC. Although they concede not all details can be remembered, the members of the organization have worked to make sure art, music, theatre and crafts have been available to the citizens of Carroll County for 50 years.
Ken Hankins, a potter at Shiloh Pottery in Hampstead and a McDaniel ceramics instructor for 40 years, remembers the early years of the Carroll County Arts Council.
According to Hankins, Ray Benson, a staff member at the Maryland State Arts Council, also from Finksburg, was offering to meet with local artists about a $3,000 art grant for a project dealing with the arts in Carroll County. Local artists showed up at the Carroll County Office Building. The artists thought it was an individual grant to an artist. However, it turned out that it was to be spent on an arts group to help the artists in the county. At the meeting, the group decided to start an arts council and hired Naomi Benzil to be the first director.
“A lot of the people involved were not artists, they wanted to see the arts council succeed,” Hankins remembered.
Benzil had an office at what was West End School. The group began to do art shows with the first art show held at Belle Grove Square. “About the same time, the CCAC started Art in the Park. There was a couple dozen artists at most,” Hankins said.
Local artist, writer and politician Kevin Dayhoff recalls what he remembers to be the first Art in the Park.
“I was in Art in the Park in 1993. We called it ‘Art in the Rain’ that year," Dayhoff said via email.
"I showed my wooden pieces. Many of my fondest memories have been art and cultural events in Carroll County. Half of the fun is talking with folks about my art and meeting new friends. The other half is sharing an artistic expression. That year, a 4-year old walked up to several of my pieces, with their anthropomorphic shapes and talked to them. As John Witiak wrote in a Carroll County Times article on the show, ‘She introduced herself to one wood piece with bottle cap eyes and tried to shake its hand.'
“I remember when the Arts Council was located in a closet and Naomi Benzil ran it on sheer willpower,” Dayhoff continued. “Since the late 1960s, the Arts Council has been located at various locations all over town — from Court Street, to the Davis Library, in the basement of the Winchester Exchange and its current location in the old Carroll Theatre. To the best of my knowledge, I have participated in a show at every location.”
Dayhoff explained: “For local artists in Carroll County in the late-1960s and early-'70s, the Arts Council was a critical portal to the art world outside of Carroll County. This, of course, was long before the internet and social media. And for those who grew up as an artist, the Arts Council provided strength in numbers, networking, information, and opportunities."
Past directors of the CCAC include Benzil, Francis Johnson, Peggy Slater, Hillary Hatfield, and Sandy Oxx.
Then CCAC moved into the old Davis Library Building, owned by Carroll County Government. They had an art gallery downstairs. When needed, Frank Libman Sr. brought hardware from his store, Westminster Hardware. He and his wife Sophie were supporters.
Phyllis and Bob Scott were also early patrons. According to Hankins, they had a variety of committees including dance, theatre, fine arts, and crafts. Each committee had a member on the Board of Directors who were responsible for coming up with ideas. Hankins and his wife Marty organized theater performances at the old Davis Library.
The group also did a Cabin Fever event during their first year at the Davis Library. They even organized a square dance.
The Carroll County Government reclaimed the building and the CCAC was then located in offices around Westminster before winding up in the basement of the Winchester Exchange that was generously donated by David Max.
Carolyn Seabolt was a CCAC member in the early years and has taught art in Carroll County Public Schools and taught at McDaniel and Carroll Community Colleges.
“The CCAC had outreach projects such as Carroll County Arts Day at the Carroll County Farm Museum. The CCAC also sponsored art exhibits in the lobby of Westminster High School with the Symphony Society of Carroll County. They held arts and crafts festivals at Westminster High School for children. At the Historical Society of Carroll County, they sponsored art shows about 1977,” she said.
In 2001, CCAC had a teachers’ show composed of all the art teachers that taught arts and crafts classes for children at the CCAC.
The same year, Audrey Cimino, Director of the Community Foundation, had an idea for a Festival of Wreaths, which is still held every year.
Linda Van Hart, adjunct art professor at McDaniel College and retired Carroll County Public Schools art teacher, was the youngest person recruited to join the newly forming CCAC.
Dr. Bob Kersey, supervisor of art and music for CCPS and Naomi and Dr. Phil Benzil asked Van Hart to be the student representative for Carroll County because they wanted her to advise them on how young people wanted to interact with the arts.
Soon after, Van Hart became an apprentice to C. Leslie Oursler, the first program coordinator and oversaw the gallery at the Davis Library. Together, they wrote the credentials for what someone had to do to present their art, music, theater, or craft at one of their venues and installed shows at the Davis Library.
They started a Friday night coffee house in the gallery at the Davis Library with Jim Thomas, one of the coordinators. There was music, poetry readings and coffee; a popular place for folks to meet during those years.
“It was another way to get people into the gallery to see what they had to offer,” Van Hart explained. By that time, Dr. Bob Kersey hired Van Hart as an art teacher for Carroll County Public Schools. She became the program coordinator for the CCAC which is one of the reasons that CCAC became the home for Youth Month.
“Most of the opportunities I had to exhibit art were coordinated by Linda Van Hart and the late John Green and Terry Eckard,” said Dayhoff. "Mostly I participated in Van Hart’s Carroll County Art Honors Alumni exhibitions that took place in the spring. I have fond memories of showing at the Davis Library location — and in the basement of the Winchester Exchange.”
In the mid-1980s, Hankins, Van Hart, Richard Andersen, Sr., and Terry Whye started a crafts guild. They started the Carroll County Art Studio Tour, at first for crafts only. After a hiatus, the tour continues today as an independent group. Many of the original members still participate in the tour, now in their 14th season. The tour includes visual arts as well as crafts. The next tour is being held Dec. 7 and 8 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (ccartists.com). Van Hart said, “We are part of creativity, fostering young artists, honoring mature artists and bringing all the arts to Carroll County.”
Slater was the third director of the CCAC and served until 1991. She was assisted by Carol Guiffre, who began as secretary to Naomi Benzil back in the early days of the Arts Council.
Slater remembers the group “running on a shoestring. “The budget was tight and we did everything from cleaning the bathrooms to serving wine and cheese trays at receptions,” she said. “ It took us a week to compile our newsletter on a typewriter.”
Slater remembers The Dorothy Elderdice Costume Collection was donated to the CCAC in the mid-1980s. This extensive collection of theatre costumes was housed above what is now Jeannie Bird Bakery.
“We rented costumes to local actors and citizens. My mom oversaw airing, washing and ironing the costumes as they were returned,” Slater said.
Slater remembers watching the weather for the Art in the Park days, dragging heavy panels out for the Youth Art Month Exhibit, hosting monthly Art Gallery Openings, typing, pasting, folding and bulk mailing that monthly newsletter and writing annual grant proposals to the Maryland State Arts Council and the Carroll County Government.
“We did our best to continue many art, craft, theatre and musical programs like Chamber Music On The Hill, Kid’s College with the Carroll Community College, annual scholarships to local high school students, just to name a few,” she said.
“One thing is sure, if we did not have a lot of volunteers in those days, these many events would not have happened. We owe them a big thanks for their many contributions over the years.”
Dorothy Tevis was a supporter. She wanted to give them her house on W. Green Street but it was not workable. The Carroll Community College had offered them a space as well, but many people wanted the CCAC to stay in downtown Westminster.
In the 1990s, the CCAC was looking for a liaison with the city, so Westminster Councilman Greg Pecoraro volunteered. Max was a strong supporter as well as the Tevis family. The CCAC wanted to be more visible than the basement space they were allowed to use for free by Max.
At that time, Pecoraro was in Easton at a Maryland Municipal League Conference. Gov. Parris Glendening was in attendance. The reception was held in an old theater Easton had repurposed into art galleries and a reception space. The governor said what a great idea it was. As soon as the event was over, Pecoraro went to the governor and asked him to talk to the Department of Housing and Community Development about funding the purchase of the old Carroll Theater in Westminster for the Carroll County Arts Council.
Westminster Director of Planning and Public Works Tom Beyard said the CCAC was looking for space.
“There was a methadone clinic that was looking to buy the old post office,” Beyard said. “I was directed to find alternate space. I called [Sen.] Larry Haines and looked at it. I came back and talked to the mayor and Sandy Oxx. They used Project Open Space to buy it, working closely with county support. Municipalities usually do not get development money. It was a complicated multi-funding project with lots of different sources, a state block grant and the legislature approved a bond bill. We needed the State support and we would not have been able to do it otherwise. We did a renovation plan.
"The idea was to help stabilized downtown Westminster. There was a strong feeling by the mayor and city council that it would be good. There was also private money. We had to come up with a lease that would make it affordable. ... The group needed time to adjust to a bigger place. Renovations were done in phases. They also needed parking and worked with Harry Sirinakis to redevelop the parking area and to lease it for night events for the CCAC.”
The city was willing to take ownership of the building. The CCAC was willing to take on the cost of redevelopment.
“The county, city and state contributed as well as the community who came together supporting the project. It has been a fabulous thing for the city,” Pecoraro said. “[Sandy] Oxx led the effort amid all this. She provided the leadership.”
“I was the mayor of Westminster when the Carroll Arts Center was opened at the old Carroll Theatre,” said Dayhoff. “The successful adaptive re-use of the old theater came as the result of a very creative collaboration between Westminster, Carroll County, and the State of Maryland. Many folks were instrumental in the success of the project. We owe a debt of gratitude to the vision and leadership demonstrated by former Mayor Ken Yowan, Council Member Greg Pecoraro, Council President Damian Halstad, Public Works Director Tom Beyard, and Governor Glendening; without whose efforts the mixed media assemblage we know today as the Carroll Arts Center would not have gotten off the drawing board.
“The power of art to strengthen our community is beyond measure,” Dayhoff continued. “For not only does a strong and vibrant community arts and cultural presence in the community strengthen spiritually and philosophically, but it also strengthens us financially and economically. Since the artistic and cultural soul of a community makes our cities and communities better places to live and work, they are often an important factor used by businesses in their decision to locate in Carroll County.”
Oxx was proud to help oversee the move.
“Being able to help provide a permanent home for the Arts Council is something that brings me great pride. Bringing that tired old theatre to life and filling it with art, music, drama and marshmallows was very fulfilling," she said. “I’ll be forever grateful for the city’s support of our vision and for the many wonderful friends and supporters I met along the way.
“Cheers for 50 more years!”
Oxx also brought the PEEPshow to the CCAC, an annual celebration of art created with the marshmallow candy PEEPS. Some 25,000 visitors turn up annually for what has become the Arts Council’s biggest fundraiser. It celebrated its 12th incarnation last spring.
Will Abbott is the current director of operations for the CCAC.
“I am happy to work for the Arts Council because it serves as a hub for the community. There are many activities for people with a wide variety of interests. I also like that the organization has such a strong history of volunteerism and community support,” he said.
During her 17 years as visual arts coordinator, Susan Williamson coordinated exhibits that featured over 2,000 artists, both local and regional.
Andy Woodard, director of programs for the Carroll County Arts Council, said: "I like that our goal is to be community-oriented, and it’s very exciting to be part of that as we move forward. We are very fortunate that we have a strong footing and we are going to make sure that we keep what is currently working, and there are also some areas we are going to work hard to improve, and that’s what our new strategic plan is all about.”
Morley, the current director of the CCAC, took over for Oxx in 2018. She notes that the CCAC is holding a 50th Anniversary Solid Gold Celebration on Sunday, Oct. 27 at 1 p.m.
“We are very excited about the future!" she said. "The Board of the Carroll County Arts Council just adopted a new strategic plan in September, and it outlines strategic priorities that include evaluating our programs to be sure they’re sustainable, enhancing our programs to reach a more diverse audience, and expanding our reach beyond the walls of the Carroll Arts Center.
"We are looking forward to launching more community-based programs and expanding our educational offerings, while maintaining the high caliber of artistic and entertainment value that we’ve come to be known for.”