A Good Year

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE ARTS ARE LIKE A MIXED BED OF VEGetables and flowers. Not only are they a delight to the senses, they are chock full of stuff that's good for you. And, by most measures, Maryland in 2006 produced a plentiful harvest.

A promise of bounty came in May, when the city's two largest museums -- the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum -- announced that, beginning in October, they would no longer charge admission, courtesy of private donations and a three-year, $800,000 pledge from Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

The giving continued in August, when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced that the state's budget for the arts would increase 21 percent during the current fiscal year, to a record $15.3 million. Some $12.6 million was funneled to 225 groups through the Maryland State Arts Council.

And that's not all.

Seventy-five arts groups put on 180 free performances in October and November, from puppet shows to jazz concerts, as part of the city's first Free Fall Baltimore. The festival was paid for with $750,000 in surplus city funds.

Most recently, film actress Jada Pinkett Smith agreed this month to donate $1 million to her alma mater, the Baltimore School for the Arts.

"Maryland historically has been a state that is very good to the arts," says Elizabeth Carven, deputy assistant secretary for the state Division of Tourism, Film and the Arts. "In previous years, we have ranked roughly seventh in per capita spending. This year, we should come in fifth."

Maryland had a lot to celebrate this year, from the cast and crew of the television series The Wire to the alternative hip-hop group Spank Rock to octogenarian Vivienne Shub and her one-woman show, The Cone Sister.

What follows is a salute by The Sun's arts staff to a few of the many individuals and groups who this year made up Maryland's bumper crop.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

PINKETT SMITH THANKS HER ALMA MATER

Jada Pinkett Smith, who credits the Baltimore School for the Arts with giving her the skills that have made her a successful actress and singer, returned the favor in a big way this month: She gave her alma mater $1 million for its renovation and expansion program.

It is the largest gift from a graduate in the acclaimed school's 26-year history. Pinkett Smith, 35, grew up in Baltimore and graduated from the School for the Arts in 1989. Now, the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation gives grants to urban education programs.

Pinkett Smith flourished at the School for the Arts, studying not only acting but also dance, choreography and songwriting. "She had a tremendous amount of creative curiosity," said her theater teacher at the school, Donald Hicken. "She was eager to acquire new skills, and I think she found it a very stimulating place."

Stephen Kiehl

WITH AWARD, BARTH IS ANONYMOUS NO MORE

Frances Barth isn't exactly a household name, so there was all the more reason for the New York-based Philanthropy Advisors to pick the painter for its annual Anonymous Was A Woman Award.

The award, which carries a $25,000 cash stipend, is given to midcareer female artists in recognition of their achievements. Barth heads the Mount Royal School of Art graduate program at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Like the MacArthur "genius" grant winners, Anonymous Was A Woman recipients don't know they're being considered for the honor. So it's a nice surprise.

"I just got a phone call telling me I had won," Barth says. She plans to use the money to buy supplies and create a living space in her studio in New Jersey, from whence she commutes to Baltimore. The money will also help with travel expenses, "so it comes at a perfect moment."

Glenn McNatt

LEVINSON ELECTS TO STIR POLITICAL TALK WITH FILM

A funny thing happened to Barry Levinson's political thriller-cum-comedy Man of the Year after it opened to mild business and dismissive reviews.

People kept lining up at the box office, and it kept entering the political conversation, not just on TV talk shows such as Chris Matthews' Hardball and Bill Maher's Real Time, but on the stump during a pivotal election year. Candidates echoed the movie's messages - including the need to go beyond thinking defined by red states and blue states.

Even Bobby Kennedy Jr., Rolling Stone's expert on election frauds and malfunctions, sent the Baltimore-born filmmaker a note thanking him for focusing attention on the dangers of computer voting.

About to embark on What Just Happened? - based on producer Art Linson's acclaimed memoir of Hollywood moviemaking - Levinson feels good about Man of the Year: "We made a mark with a movie that wasn't very expensive, and we made some noise in the culture."

Michael Sragow

SAYYED GAINES SHOWS HER TRUE COLORS ON BROADWAY

Most performers would be content to be a principal dancer with an internationally renowned company.

Not Bahiyah Sayyed Gaines.

These days, Sayyed Gaines, a former principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, appears in the chorus of the Broadway musical of The Color Purple.

For 6 1/2 years, the 1992 Baltimore School for the Arts graduate danced and traveled with the New York dance company. Then, two years ago, she and her husband, dancer/choreographer Jamel Gaines, had a son. Touring for three-quarters of each year lost some of its appeal.

Now, Sayyed Gaines not only dances, but she also sings and acts in the adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The experience has proved so satisfying, she'd like to pursue more theatrical roles - even some without dance.

Although she was only a child when she first saw the 1985 film of The Color Purple, she says, "I remember crying a lot and then feeling so joyous afterward." Now she's helping instill those feelings in others.

J. Wynn Rousuck

YOUNG'S WEB SITE OFFERS WRITTEN PORTRAITS OF THE ARTISTS

Joseph Young's work as a freelance editor for medical journals is not where his heart is. It may not even be in the fiction he writes for Exquisite Corpse and Mississippi Review.

His ardor is reserved for a Web site, BaltimoreInterview.com, that he started this year with Michael Cantor, a photographer and the owner of Salamander Books in Hampden. The site focuses on profiles of Baltimore artists.

Young, 41, was inspired by a tour of Baltimore artists' studios to profile every artist in the city. Readers should get the feeling that "they are able to go into an artist's studio to talk about their work."

Recent profiles include Pam Thompson, who "wraps objects - a coal shovel, a surfboard, a bicycle - in plastic and turns a heat gun on them"; and Heidi Neff, whose "cathedral paintings" are laced not with "hosts of angels or the ascension of Christ" but with "bodies twined into sexual frenzy."

Nick Madigan

Graf dances her way back to rave reviews

Bouquets for Alicia Graf, the statuesque 27-year-old dancer who has regained her artistic momentum after a knee injury in 1999 appeared to end her promising career at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. While waiting for her body to heal, the Columbia, Md., native attended Columbia University in New York, graduating with honors and a degree in history. Reconnecting with her passion, she returned to the Dance Theatre of Harlem, then last year joined the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Once more collecting rave reviews, she appears on the cover of the current issue of Dance Magazine.

The 5-foot-10-inch dancer will be performing with the Ailey company at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington from Feb. 6-11.

Linell Smith

'THE WIRE' TAPS INTO LOCAL TALENT, RECEIVES NATIONAL ATTENTION

It seems hard to imagine any TV drama receiving more critical acclaim than HBO's The Wire did during its recently completed fourth season. Take The New York Times editorial that described the Baltimore-based series as being "the closest that moving pictures have come so far to the depth and nuance of the novel."

Beyond achieving a rare level of artistic excellence, the series provided a national stage for such outstanding area actors as Robert F. Chew (Proposition Joe Stewart), Tootsie Duvall (Marcia Donnelly), Felicia Pearson (Snoop) and Jermaine Crawford (Duquan "Dukie" Weems). The fifth and final season of the Peabody Award-winning series will guarantee 125 jobs and pump $18 million into the local economy. Look for The Wire signs around the city as creator David Simon and his team start production next month.

David Zurawik

CD PROVES JETT STILL LOVES ROCK N' ROLL

Joan Jett has stuck by the sentiments in her 1981 smash, "I Love Rock N' Roll." Trim and energetic at 47, Jett, who grew up in Rockville, re-emerged in 2006 with Sinner, her first album of new material in more than a decade. Critically well-received, the CD generated buzz for the rock veteran, who was one of the headliners at HFStival and the Vans Warped Tour. Both stopped this past summer at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia.

Although Jett shared the stage with acts who weren't even born when "I Love Rock N' Roll" topped the pop charts for eight straight weeks, she held her own.

"It's a great time for the music I'm doing," she said in May, two weeks before performing in the area. "Being a fan of guitar-based music, it's great for me to get out there and absorb all these new bands."

Rashod Ollison

ROTHMAN STANDS TALL AT THE BOX OFFICE

Born and bred in Baltimore, Tom Rothman, co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment, has become the most respected, consistently successful studio head in Hollywood. He had a huge 2006. While breaking box-office records with the comic-book epic X-Men: The Last Stand (starring Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry), he also proved himself a master of shepherding movies that most studio execs wouldn't have a clue how to handle: the urbane midsized comedy The Devil Wears Prada, the groundbreaking guerrilla farce Borat and (through Fox's specialty company, Fox Searchlight) the delightful family dramedy Little Miss Sunshine.

In the midst of all this enterprise, Rothman hasn't forgotten Charm City. He allowed the Maryland Film Festival early access to special films like Sunshine. He even had a hand in bringing one of Fox's biggest 2007 releases here for its opening week of production: Live Free or Die Hard, the fourth adventure starring Bruce Willis as top cop John McClane. After a year like this, Rothman and his friends in Baltimore have a right to yell out a big John McClane Yippee-ki-yay !

Michael Sragow

BSO GETS MUCH-NEEDED HARMONY FROM RICHLIN

W. Gar Richlin this year was the right man in the right place at the right time.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra might not have made it all the way through 2006 had it not been for the Baltimore attorney and businessman.

He was asked to step in as interim president last January when BSO president and chief executive officer James Glicker resigned. Richlin deftly defused animosities between musicians and management and worked to rebuild trust among longtime donors.

In September, Richlin's straight talk proved critical in negotiating a new contract with the players, and greatly aided in averting a strike and possible financial collapse of the institution. In October, he turned over the job, and a much healthier, happier BSO, to the symphony's new president, Paul Meecham.

Tim Smith

WILES IS ON POINTE AS PRINCIPAL WITH AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE

Ballerina Michele Wiles is blooming on the nation's stages in some of the most challenging roles of the classical repertoire.

The 26-year-old beauty is a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, one of just 10 Americans in that position.

Fully recovered from a stress fracture that sidelined her for four months this year, she has caught critics' attention. (The New York Times has commented on "her new sense of ease.")

Wiles, who grew up in Pasadena, will appear in Antony Tudor's Dark Elegies at the Kennedy Center next month. She also will dance lead roles for the ABT this season in such demanding ballets as Symphonie Concertante and Swan Lake.

"There are rare occurrences in performance when all the hard work, all the repetitions and practices pay off, and the dancing comes easy," Wiles told The Sun in April. "I feel weightless and open and free. I don't even feel human half the time. It's almost as if I become the energy."

Mary Carole McCauley

WITH $1 MILLION GIFT, COHEN FREES UP BMA VISITORS

Think good deeds and who comes to mind if not Suzanne F. Cohen, the longtime Baltimore Museum of Art trustee who gave the museum $1 million to endow its new free admissions policy?

Cohen has been on the BMA's board for nearly three decades, and in recent years she's supported major exhibitions of contemporary art there.

She's also donated funds for important acquisitions of works by artists like Ellsworth Kelly and Mel Bochner. And this year, she gave the BMA another $1 million for future shows.

"People today have a much better appreciation and interest in contemporary art, but there's also still great puzzlement about it," Cohen told The Sun in September, when her gifts were announced. "We see that as one of our very exciting challenges, to help people overcome that puzzlement."

Glenn McNatt

ROBINSON HITS IT BIG WITH BIG-SCREEN DEBUT 'ATL'

Already renowned for directing videos featuring the likes of Jay-Z, Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige, Bel Air's Chris Robinson made an impressive big-screen debut this year with ATL, a coming-of-age drama centering on a group of Atlanta teens looking for a future beyond the mean streets of their hometown. The film earned $21.2 million at the U.S. box office, then received four nominations at October's Black Film Awards in Los Angeles.

And his good work didn't stop at the screen. Robinson continued his efforts as one of the founders of RockCorps, an organization that gives young people concert tickets in exchange for work in their communities.

True, 2006 wasn't perfect: At the awards presentation, Robinson lost the directing nod to Inside Man's Spike Lee, and the film lost to Akeelah and the Bee. But that barely dims the luster of what was, by any account, a pretty fine rookie year.

Chris Kaltenbach

TV ON THE RADIO CLIMBS 'MOUNTAIN' WITH ACCESSIBLE CD

TV on the Radio may have been the most critically acclaimed indie-rock band of 2006. The quintet's major-label debut, Return to Cookie Mountain, was a complex, stimulating mash-up of disparate styles and textures. Yet the music - often overlaid with left-of-center, politically charged lyrics - was accessible. The band's inventive musical vision so impressed rock legend David Bowie that he offered background vocals to "Province," a standout track on Cookie Mountain.

Founding member David Andrew Sitek, who grew up in Columbia, oversees TVOTR's shifting soundscapes, which meld faint strains of gospel, punk, hip-hop, even doo-wop. About the band's unconventional approach, Sitek is matter-of-fact: "We're five individuals with different backgrounds and interests," he says. "The music is ruled by a question mark."

Rashod Ollison

WITH NUMEROUS ART SHOWS, KING-HAMMOND HAS A FULL CANVAS

It's been a whirlwind year for Leslie King-Hammond.

In April, the Maryland Institute College of Art dean joined the board of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. That appointment came on the heels of an African-American art show she curated at Morgan State University's James E. Lewis Museum.

Last summer, King-Hammond collaborated with artist-architect Jose Mapily on an installation for a New York Historical Society show about slavery. Then she led a MICA symposium on artist Willie Birch.

She won't slow down in January, when a show about female artists she curated opens at the Ceres Gallery in New York. After that comes At Freedom's Door, a landmark show about slavery in Maryland at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum and the Maryland Historical Society.

"I'm exhausted," says King-Hammond, "but there doesn't seem to be any end to it. I guess that's good."

Glenn McNatt

STELTER KEEPS WORLD UPDATED WITH NEWS ABOUT THE NEWS

Brian Stelter admits to being obsessed with television.

"I always wanted to be Brian Williams," says the 21-year-old senior at Towson University, whose TVNewser blog has become indispensable reading in the television news world.

The NBC News anchor himself is a fan of the blog, as are about 25,000 others who check in daily at mediabistro.com/tvnewser.

The site was flooded with hits in August when it posted a doctored CBS promotional photo of Katie Couric that showed her having shed about 20 pounds. During September, the month Couric debuted on the CBS Evening News, TVNewser had 1.7 million page views.

In November, Stelter made the front page of The New York Times.

Stelter, who is also editor of Towson University's Towerlight newspaper, says TVNewser's readers "expect it to be an update of everything that's going on, all the time."

Nick Madigan

SPANK ROCK'S HIP-HOP CD 'YOYOYOYOYO' TURNS HEADS

Bringing a fresh style to the world of hip-hop is no easy task, but Spank Rock is staking out new sonic territory.

Founded by Baltimore natives Naeem Juwan (MC Spank Rock) and Alex Epton (DJ Armani XXX-Change), Spank Rock delivers potty-mouthed lyrics and innovative beats. Indie media developed a fixation on the duo, and several outlets named their debut, Yoyoyoyoyo, one of the year's most original hip-hop albums. Recorded on the cheap, it made year-end top 10 lists of journalists and bloggers in the U.S. and overseas.

Though the guys no longer live in Baltimore, they still travel to the city and throw heated dance parties at local clubs. Spank Rock's first album and subsequent international touring turned plenty of heads this year, and audiences at home and abroad are eagerly awaiting the band's next step.

Sam Sessa

SHUB WOWS AUDIENCES WITH HER 'SISTER' ACT

One of Baltimore's living legends, Vivienne Shub is a petite actress who conveys a grand spirit on stage and off. Shub performed at Center Stage in its inaugural season four decades ago, and she's been a company member at Everyman Theatre for the past dozen years.

Most recently, she wowed sold-out audiences with her portrayal of another Baltimore legend, Etta Cone, one of two sisters whose keen eye for modern art led them to amass an extraordinary collection, now housed at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Written by Shub's sister, Naomi Greenberg-Slovin, The Cone Sister premiered at Everyman in September and proved so popular, it will return next month.

At a time when it was customary for mothers to stay home and raise their families, Shub was also appearing regularly on Baltimore stages - quietly proving that a wife and mother could have a distinguished career. Now at an age - 88 - when most people, not merely actors, are contentedly retired, Shub continues not only to perform, but to explore new work.

J. Wynn Rousuck

JUNG HAS STRIKING SUCCESS WITH MARIMBA PLAYING

Three years after entering the Peabody Institute, 21-year-old Ji Hye Jung seems to be well on her way to a major career as a marimba player.

The Korean-born undergraduate won first prize at a major event last summer, the 2006 International Marimba Competition in Linz, Austria. As part of the prize, she'll go on a European concert tour in May; a U.S. tour is scheduled next season. And her first CD is due out next summer.

"I've taught a lot of great players in my time, but she is really incredible." says Jung's professor, Robert Van Sice, one of the most respected players and teachers in the field. "If you said 'solo percussionist' 20 years ago, people thought it was an oxymoron. Now solo percussionists are filling halls."

It looks like Jung will be doing just that.

Tim Smith

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