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Art played a part in building Columbia

Items in the exhibit, “The HeART of Columbia: Creating community with art.”
Items in the exhibit, “The HeART of Columbia: Creating community with art.” (Courtesy Photo)

Longtime residents thinking back on the 50-year history of Columbia have a lot to contemplate. If they really want to get the memories flowing, they should visit the exhibit "The HeART of Columbia: Creating community with art" at the Rouse Company Foundation Gallery at Howard Community College.

The name of this gallery serves as a direct reminder of just how much the late developer James Rouse continues to mean in the planned community that has gone from farmland to an unincorporated city of around 100,000 residents.

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What the many photographs, text panels and objects in this exhibit have in common is an emphasis on how the arts helped in the community-building efforts here.

Local arts institutions serve as community anchors. Indeed, a specific piece of art, Pierre Du Fayet's fiberglass and gold-leaf sculpture known as The People Tree, prominently symbolizes the community's unifying ideals at its downtown lakefront perch.

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It's really neat that the current exhibit includes a five-foot-tall model for that iconic sculpture. This model was tucked away at the nearby former headquarters of the Rouse Co. The damaged model was given to the Columbia Archives, has been repaired and is among the highlights of the exhibit.

Surveying the role played by the arts in the history of Columbia, there are some organizations that played an early role and have disappeared from the local scene. Most of the long-established organizations are still around, even though some of them have seen changes in mission or location.

An example of one that has disappeared is the Columbia Cooperative Gallery. Founded by 14 women artists as the Women's Gallery in 1975, it occupied space in Wilde Lake Village Center. It later admitted men and changed its name to the Columbia Cooperative Gallery. Although it folded in 1990, its artist roster includes people who remained active on the local scene.

A strong example of an organization dating back to the 1970s that remains extremely active is Toby's Dinner Theatre. Exhibited set pieces and costumes for Stephen Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George" add a bit of theatrical flair to this archive-oriented show.

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Toby's founder Toby Orenstein also has had the Columbia Center of Theatrical Arts going since the '70s. One of the most notable photos in the exhibit depicts the Young Columbians performing for President Jimmy Carter at the White House in 1977.

Other local arts organizations with a remarkable sense of continuity include the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, founded in 1974, and Columbia Pro Cantare, founded in 1977.

The Columbia Orchestra has been around since 1977, although it was known as Columbia Chamber Orchestra in its early days. Its current music director, Jason Love, is represented in the exhibit by a bobblehead figure. You know you have arrived in contemporary pop culture when a bobblehead figure is made in your honor!

One long-running organization that arguably has been a quieter presence is the Faithful Circle Quilters, which was founded in 1971 and is still around. An exhibited People Tree Quilt was made in 1972 and visually represents neighborhoods including the Birches, Locust Park and Swansfield. This quilt was owned by Jim Rouse himself. It was given to the Columbia Archives in 2014.

Other longtime groups have identities that combine elements of both continuity and change. The Columbia Art Center, for instance, was founded in 1974 as the Visual Art Center. It was affiliated with Antioch University between 1976 and 1981. If mention of the Antioch connection has you nodding your head in bobblehead fashion, that means you're a vintage Columbian.

Now run by the Columbia Association, the Columbia Art Center has simply kept going through all those administrative changes. A constant for this venue has been as a site for making and exhibiting ceramics, which was acknowledged with an exhibit of ceramics there this month.

Merriweather Post Pavilion has been a very popular arts attraction for many years. Have a look at the exhibited construction photographs from 1967. Its initial intended use was as a summer home for the National Symphony Orchestra. Glance at the extremely low prices on some exhibited symphonic tickets and you will have all the more reason to think of those years as the good old days. Merriweather's subsequent history as a rock music mecca is also documented.

The exhibit also mentions the current renovations underway at Merriweather, as well as the ownership transfer last year to the Columbia Arts and Culture Commission. The Inner Arbor Trust's plans for the adjacent Symphony Woods are also acknowledged, including the recently opened performance space known as the Chrysalis. It's great to see one of its distinctive green metal shingles on display in an art gallery.

Gail Holliday has traveled across the country to Columbia to help preserve an aspect of her work that once greeted visitors to Columbia's exhibition center — five metal pole "trees" that featured Holliday's images of Columbia on 25 metal "leaves."

Yet another example of an organization combining continuity and change is the Columbia Festival of the Arts. Created in 1989 as a concentrated festival in June, it now consists of several mini-festivals spaced throughout the year. An exhibited autographed poster for French mime Marcel Marceau's appearance in 2000 speaks to the top talent that appeared over the decades.

A striking example of an organization whose mission has remained constant but whose location has changed multiple times is the African Art Museum of Maryland. It began with a 1980 exhibit at Howard Community College, had homes at Phelps Luck Elementary School and the Rockland Arts Center (now the Howard County Center for the Arts), remained for a long time at Historic Oakland in downtown Columbia, and now has its home in Fulton.

The museum's artwork in the present exhibit includes a Dogon ancestor figure from Mali and a tapestry from Swaziland. They're part of the cultural tapestry of Columbia.

"The HeART of Columbia: Creating community with art" runs through July 17 at the Rouse Company Foundation Gallery at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. Running concurrently in the college's Art Department Gallery is "Celebrating Columbia's Connection to its Sister Cities." Go to www.howardcc.edu



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