Success, growth -- and growing pains; Arts: Support for Annapolis' Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts has been so great that it may be time for a larger, better-equipped facility.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts is always busy.

Paint brushes flick at canvases, little girls in tights twirl in corners, potters crush clay on spinning wheels, a twanging guitar clashes with the click-click-click of heels in the hallways, and baking scones scent the entire basement.

In a second life that began 20 years ago when the 68,000-square-foot edifice built as a high school was declared obsolete, Maryland Hall has become the heart of the capital's arts community.

With an annual budget that has grown to $1.6 million, the creative arts center is the successful realization of a dream for the arts lovers who petitioned for it, and a place of wonder for thousands of students who have tried everything from painting to playing piano in its classrooms.

But now, the burgeoning crowd of opera, ballet and orchestra fans has pushed the hall to its limits. Some artistic leaders say it will soon be time to build a larger performing arts center -- one that is not an aging school auditorium retrofitted for professional musicians and dancers.

"It is hampered in that we don't have the [proper] performing arts stage. It's not large enough and it's not equipped," said Ellen Moyer, a board member and one of the volunteers who helped found the hall.

"We don't have the theater-in-the-round, the kind of performing arts center to offer a variety of entertainment even at the same time," she said. "We're getting filled. There have been some conversations about looking to get, say, a mini-Meyerhoff."

Of the four performing groups that call the hall home -- the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, the Annapolis Opera, the Ballet Theater of Annapolis and the Annapolis Chorale and Chamber Orchestra -- most must offer two or three performances of each show in order to squeeze all their fans into the 850-seat auditorium.

Directors of the groups appreciate the space, but each can point out limitations within the building that affect their performances.

The symphony orchestra, which routinely fills the hall for performances, would benefit from better acoustics and more seats. The opera, which has to give up 70 seats to its accompanists at each performance, needs an orchestra pit. The ballet, whose 25 dancers practice in a cramped school chorus room, needs more studio space. And the chorale, 150 voices strong, needs a better acoustics shell for the stage.

"We have done the best with what we have and it's far superior to most," said Linnell R. Bowen, executive director of the hall. "What's exciting is that the artists are thinking big. They just want us to be the best we can be."

Next generation of artists

Bowen has worked with the arts center for three years, but she has long been familiar with the building. In 1962, when most of its tenants were teens in poodle skirts and letter jackets, she taught U.S. history in a second-floor classroom. Before that, she attended and graduated from the school in 1958.

Room 205, her old history classroom, is now a staff meeting room, occasionally used by literary groups for readings. She knows well how quickly the building is running out of space. Rooms in nearby Bates Middle School already are taking up some of the artistic overflow, but she is proud of what the hall has accomplished.

"I think the greatest gift that Maryland Hall brings is community pride," she said. "There are tons of artists who get their start here. We really are trying to raise the next generation of dancers, musicians and playwrights."

The idea for a Maryland Hall germinated while Bowen was still quizzing students on war dates.

In the late 1960s, City Alderman Ellen Moyer, then wife of mayor Roger "Pip" Moyer, became involved in a push for an arts council in Annapolis. By 1972, she headed a group of residents pressing for an arts center. The time was right: The orchestra had already been in existence for a dozen years, the opera company and chorale were forming, and several other small groups, including the Colonial Players and a poetry society, were entertaining audiences and teaching students.

"More than a thousand persons involved in the theater arts have no space in which to do their thing," the August 1972 report said.

"The question was not whether the need existed; it was how do we meet that need?" Moyer said.

The city council voted unanimously for a study to find a building site. But months later, when Moyer's group asked the city to match its fund-raising for a center, they were not so successful.

"The new mayor and council weren't even interested," Moyer recalled. "We were just dismissed."

Arts center reconsidered

Four years later, state Sen. Roy Staten formed another committee to review the creation of a cultural arts center. Moyer was a member. It considered property at St. Johns College and a parcel near City Hall.

But the group noted that Anne Arundel County's school board was planning a new Annapolis High School off Riva Road. That would leave the old high school empty, except for the pigeons nesting on the third floor.

"We had to convince the Board of Education that it'd be a viable thing to do, and we had to convince the county that it'd be a good partnership," said Beth Whaley, another of the hall's founders. "We had to go to the county executive and help him realize this was good for the county and that there was a lot of community support. We had to mount a campaign so that when the budget time came around, there would be [supportive] voices.

"That's what I remember mostly, a lot of hard work," Whaley said.

The county and arts volunteers struck a deal: the board of education would continue to own the building and to supply custodial and maintenance staff. The hall would admit some county students to classes taught by local artists for free, and its volunteers would raise money for any other necessary improvements.

With $10,000 from the Annapolis Fine Arts Foundation, and grants from the Maryland Arts Council and the county Commission on Culture and the Arts, volunteers moved into the school in the spring of 1979, patching holes in the roof, repairing windows, and driving away the pigeons.

The new Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts opened its doors Oct. 1.

The symphony quickly carved out a choice place in the building for its offices. Portrait artist Bonnie Roth Anderson rented a third-floor studio with large windows that catch the afternoon sun, and the Ballet Theater of Annapolis began teaching children plies and arabesques.

'Bigger than all of us'

It's been pretty much the same ever since. Maintenance is catch-as-catch-can, as-you-can, and peeling paint and broken mirrors are present in many of the old classrooms. But on any given day, the old brick hall teems with the children of less than well-to-do families learning to dance and sing. Nights, it pulses with crowds of well-dressed dignitaries enjoying a cultural outing.

And always, the hall is a meeting place where sculptors and violinists, professionals and students, parents and staffers share ideas over coffee -- and scones.

"That's the magic of Maryland Hall," said J. Ernest Green, director of the chorale. "We're all there together and I feel that this is all leading to something that is bigger than all of us."

To mark the 20th anniversary of Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, volunteers have organized a picnic, dinner and performance this weekend.

Tomorrow's dinner at 6 p.m. includes cocktails and celebrity bartenders, and an arts and antique auction. Tickets are $75; organizers expect more than 400 guests.

The picnic, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, will include entertainment and hands-on art demonstrations. At 8 p.m., tap dancer Kelly Isaac, pianist Stef Scaggiari, and jazz singer Ethel Ennis will perform at a champagne reception. Tickets are $25.

Information: 410-263-5544

Pub Date: 9/23/99

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