When Sandy Oxx started her first day as executive director of the Carroll County Arts Council, she made her way down the stairs into the dingy basement of the Winchester Exchange, greeted the council’s one part-time employee, sat down in her office which housed the Arts Center’s only bathroom and got to work planning the arts in Carroll County.
When her final day comes at the end of June, she will pack up her things from her upstairs office, say goodbye to her staff of dedicated employees and leave the Carroll Arts Center, now a beautifully restored art deco theater, home to three art galleries, classrooms for summer camps and a stage that hosts concerts, films and stage productions.
For 21 years, Oxx has led the Arts Council as it expanded, creating new initiatives like the Festival of Wreaths and PEEPshow while keeping alive the council’s mission to bring the arts to Carroll County. Now, she said it’s time to move on, announcing her resignation Friday, Jan. 5 as she prepares to hand over the reins to the next generation of leadership.
“I wanted to leave while things are still great,” Oxx said. “I feel like when your kid is 21, you’re done; it’s time to push them out the door. I know we’re at a point where the next chapter has to be another big thing. It’s not extending the PEEPshow a day, it’s got to be big and it’s time to find new vision on that.”
The history of the Carroll County Arts Council can pretty easily be divided into pre-Sandy Oxx and post-Sandy Oxx eras. Originally founded in 1969, the Arts Council began as a council of volunteers eager to boost the profile of the arts in the county. After about a decade, they became affiliated with county as one of the Recreation Councils.
When Oxx came on board, they ran a single gallery in the basement of the Winchester Exchange, where Gotham Comics is currently located. Oxx was selected from about 70 applicants and introduced officially as the new director in June 1997’s Art in the Park celebration.
Though she said the position soon became a dream job, at first she didn’t expect much from the job.
“Oh my God, I didn’t want to come; I thought it was the end of the world,” Oxx said.
She had moved to Maryland from Rochester, New York, after her husband got a position in Gaithersburg. With her experience as a director of development for the Rochester Museum and Science Center, and her study of arts management at New York University, Oxx said she began looking for arts-related jobs in the area. She said the Carroll County Arts Council job appealed to her because it sounded “easy.”
“We had a $120,000 budget, and I had a 3-year-old son,” Oxx said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s the budget for my stationery at my last job.’ ”
Oxx didn’t think she had even seen the Arts Council’s facility when she accepted the job after interviewing for it at Johanssons Dining House and Restaurant on Main Street.
“It was pretty humble in those days,” Oxx said. “We were underground. My desk was a door on two file cabinets and we had an art gallery assistant who worked part time and just sat outside. It was pretty lonely.”
There, Oxx started brainstorming ideas for fundraisers and ways to entice the public into visiting the gallery. She said they had really high quality art on the walls, but no one other than artists was coming in to check it out.
“There was nothing to interest Joe Q. Public,” Oxx said. “That’s who I’ve always felt we have to reach out to, because the artists and the arts aficionados and collectors will find us, but Joe Q. Public won’t.”
Dave Max, head of the board at the time of Oxx’s hiring, said she was a real gift to the council.
“She was more qualified than what the job called for,” Max said. “She had a lot of experience, a great combination of understanding business and the arts together. She was an unbelievable director and a cheerleader who really knew how to engage people.”
That winter, the council assembled what would become Oxx’s first major initiative and launch what would become one of her longest-lasting legacies, The Festival of Wreaths. The festival invited Carroll County residents — not just fine artists, but families, businesses and those who have never touched a paintbrush before — to create their own themed holiday wreath. Some were elegant, but what made the festival unique was the emphasis on the outlandish, the fun and the silly. Oxx said she raided her son’s toy closet for Beanie Baby and Pokemon themed wreaths. The event was an instant success.
“The fact that Carroll County got it in one year is amazing,” Oxx said. “That first year, the creativity came in from people. We had people who weren’t artists coming in, and it was really heartening for me to do something fun and cool that really engaged the public.”
In 2000, just as the council was exploring options to expand beyond its space in Winchester Exchange, the former Carroll Theatre — then used as an annex for the Church of the Open Door — went on sale. Through a partnership with the city, and county and state funding, the theater was purchased to be the new home of the Arts Council, and after three years, the doors to the Carroll Arts Center opened to the public.
The facility, located on Main Street, featured everything the organization needed to expand in the new century, from a theater space that would host music performances, theater productions and film festivals, to gallery spaces to classrooms and offices, the Carroll Arts Center introduced new life into the council and became the focal point of the arts in Carroll County.
Richard Soisson, who at the time worked with the county Recreation and Parks Department and was loaned to the council to aid in the restoration process of the building, said Oxx took charge and led the restoration efforts like a champion.
“It was really a unified effort, because the state gave money, the county bought the building and the city was putting money into the renovation,” Soisson said. “Sandy had to work with all three entities, as well as work with a consultant to get it all done in a reasonable amount of time, plus do everything she had to do normally as the director of the Arts Council.”
The first exhibit in the Arts Center’s Tevis Gallery was “State of the Arts: Celebrating Maryland Artists” a show that featured work by artists from every county in Maryland, while in the theater, they showed “Building on the Memories: The Carroll Arts Center Restoration.”
After five years at the new location, Oxx was struck by inspiration and developed what would eventually become the council’s largest annual fundraiser, one of the most popular Carroll County events of the year and what will likely be Oxx’s lasting legacy, the PEEPshow.
Inspired loosely by The Washington Post’s first Peeps Diorama Contest, Oxx took the idea of creating art from marshmallow Peeps and exploded it faster than a Peep in a microwave. Artists were no longer limited to the small dimensions of a diorama and multimedia pieces were accepted as well, turning a cute novelty exhibit that could only be viewed in the newspaper or online into a chance for sculptors to create massive works of food art, as well as create a museum-style home to paintings, films, displays and more.
After seven years, the PEEPshow became the council’s biggest fundraiser, surpassing the Festival of Wreaths, and in 2014, it was endorsed by Just Born, the maker of Peeps, which began providing official merchandise and sending out its president and board members to check out the work while riding in the official PEEPSMOBILE — yes, the company requires that the vehicle, a yellow Volkswagen Beetle with a sculpted Peep roof, be written out entirely in capital letters.
Now, more than 25,000 people come to visit the PEEPshow, which hosts about 150 sculptures and raises more than $75,000 for the council each year.
Oxx, who had a Peep tattooed on her wrist in 2014 to celebrate a then-record-breaking fundraising take, said she is immensely proud of the PEEPshow, and that something that might seem so silly to the outside world can actually reflect her goals and purpose as someone who works in the arts.
“To see a state trooper make a beautiful thing out of marshmallows or to see a family that never thought they were artists come together to create something is very special,” Oxx said. “To have an event that appeals equally to someone who is 5 and 95 is not easy. This tattoo, I don’t regret it because it’s a totally meaningful symbol of the sweetness of this job.”
Though these major fundraising events bring in the most people to the Arts Center, and are often the most visible part of the job, Oxx said she takes equal pride in the behind-the-scenes work from running and personally participating in summer camps for kids, to making sure that the employees of the Arts Center are able to make a living by working in the arts. Oxx said one of the things that makes her most proud is that she was able to bring health insurance to the council’s employees.
“The Festival of Wreaths and the PEEPshow are the things that have become my signature, but I certainly hope I’m remembered for more than buffing up the bank accounts,” Oxx said. “I know it’s not easy, but I’m really proud that we are able to offer a living wage. I don’t know how many people in Carroll County make a living with the arts.”
Anne Blue, current board president, said Sandy brought her soul to the Arts Council, and over the years, has made everyone feel welcome and assembled an amazing team of employees.
“Most people don’t know that Sandy is there hands on teaching at summer camp playing guitar with the children and she loves it,” Blue said.
Oxx said she feels like she does more for the arts in this community by playing guitar and singing camp songs with the kids than she does with all of the fundraising efforts throughout the year.
“We’re creating audiences for the future,” Oxx said. “I got into the arts when I was that age. Every year since we started, I spend two or three weeks of camp with the little kids singing the same songs that I learned when I was in the Girl Scouts.”
Other events that Oxx said have brought her pride include the foreign film festivals, annual Charlie Brown Jazz concerts and the evening the council hosted a live viewing of Obama’s inauguration.
“I got a little grief on that, but this theater wasn’t integrated,” Oxx said. “To be in this theater and to watch that man get inaugurated in the theater, there were men in their 60s, men who weren’t that much older than me weeping. They were not old men, but they couldn’t go to that theater, and to see them watch a black man get inaugurated was a particular source of pride.”
Though Oxx said she is proud of her time with the organization, as the 20th anniversary of the Festival of Wreaths approaches and with the 10th anniversary of the PEEPshow in rearview mirror, she knew it was time to move on and let someone with new vision take over and lead the council into its next stage.
“I have a job where I have meaningful, heartwarming experiences all the time. Who else has a job like that?” Oxx said. “I’m still having moments where I’m like, ‘I can’t believe I resigned,’ but I know it’s time to see someone else lead them in the changes that need to occur.”
Oxx and Blue agreed that the next director of the Arts Council will be the one to lead it out of the Carroll Arts Center and into the greater Carroll County community. Blue said in recent years, theater groups like September Song have needed more space than the center can provide, and it’s becoming even more important to support local arts initiatives and find new locations to house public art.
Looking forward, Oxx said she’s not sure where her life will take her next. She said she’s planning on taking some time off and taking advantage of the opportunity to travel.
The council hopes to have a candidate selected by May who will work alongside Oxx for two months before she leaves at the end of June. She said she has just one piece of advice for her successor — thank the public.
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“There are two messages I want to leave behind,” Oxx said. “One is you can really have a dream job. You really can get paid to do what you like and have fun. The other is that the arts are for everyone. I really like to think I made a lot of headway in making the arts accessible and interesting to people. I hope I did.”