Public art can define a locale and ratchet up its appeal in a way nothing else can, say organizers of a fledgling nonprofit.
That’s why Fund for Art in Ellicott City, which was founded in November 2017, is sponsoring a mural competition for professional and amateur artists on four buildings around the historic district.
The nonprofit, known as AEC, aims to use public art to further enhance Old Ellicott City’s ongoing recovery from May’s flash flood, the second such catastrophe to hit the mill town since July 2016.
“We incorporated with the express purpose of bringing public art to Main Street,” said Kim Egan, a Woodbine attorney who serves as AEC president. “There’s a generalized desire in the town to see more art.”
Rounding out AEC’s board of directors are Edie Manney and Lisa Devries, who work for an Ellicott City estate firm.
Bond bill requests for the Ellicott City Public Art Project totaling $175,000 were funded by the House and Senate during the 2018 session of the Maryland General Assembly. The nonprofit has committed to raising additional funds to cover project costs.
State Sen. Guy Guzzone, a Democrat representing Howard’s 13th District, supports AEC’s mission, saying residents want to see Ellicott City’s flooding problem solved, but also want to broaden the beloved town’s enduring appeal.
“What do we want to build in the long term? How is Ellicott City going to be an exciting and interesting place for people to enjoy? One way we can continue to make it a great place is through art,” Guzzone said.
Egan said that while the county supports musical and performing arts, it hasn’t yet accomplished much in the way of public art that is accessible to everyone.
“There are a lot of visual artists here, but not much public art,” she said.
In one of its first acts to remedy that dearth, later this month, AEC will install the second iteration of a sculpture titled “Aubergine” — dubbed “the Ellicott City Eggplant” by many — that was on loan to the town from August 2015 through July 2016 as part of the Howard County Arts Council’s annual ARTsites program.
“Everyone missed it after it was removed from the Welcome Center on Main Street and sold to an Annapolis business owner, so we asked sculptor Jan Kirsh to make Eggplant 2.0,” Egan said.
For the mural contest, the three AEC board members will judge submissions, hewing closely to the desire of the Howard County Historic Preservation Commission to solicit design themes that maintain a suitable historical perspective, Egan said.
“We took the commission’s thoughts to establish our mural competition guidelines,” Egan said of the contest rules, which are available at artinellicottcity.com.
“We will not be pushing the boundaries of artistic convention anytime too soon,” she observed.
Preference will be given to designs that: educate the public about the historic use of the building or the history of Ellicott City in general; depict an under-represented aspect of Ellicott City’s history, such as Patapsco Valley indigenous peoples, the Revolutionary War or slavery; incorporate environmentally sustainable materials; and hold appeal for children.
The five-member commission is discouraging painting on brick, a move away from permitting anything like the existing mural of Tonge Row that is painted on the east wall of the defunct theater at 8221 Main Street and Old Columbia Pike.
The east and south walls of the building — which was most recently occupied by Precious Gifts, which has since moved to 8167 Main Street — and is now presently being advertised as the coming site of a restaurant and music revue called The Ellicott — combine to make up one of the four competition sites. The building is now being advertised as the coming site of a restaurant and music venue called The Ellicott.
The other three sites are: the east wall of Sweet Elizabeth Jane, 8229 Main Street; the west wall of Yates Market, 8249 Main Street; and the west wall of A Journey from Junk, 3709 Old Columbia Pike.
“We don’t view this requirement [to not paint directly on walls] as inhibiting the project in any way,” Egan noted.
Winning muralists will benefit from being able to create their designs in a studio instead of on scaffolding outdoors and their murals could be uninstalled at a future point and exhibited in a museum, she said.
Application information was distributed to such organizations as the Howard County Arts Council, area gallery owners and the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore, among others.
Guzzone said people frequently point to the Carroll Creek Park project in downtown Frederick as a successful example of a place that is renewing its vitality through public art after flooding issues in the 1970s.
“Public art creates atmosphere, vibrancy and life,” he said.
The senator acknowledged that not all residents give top ranking to public art when it comes time to dole out government funding.
“We’ve got a lot of priorities — education, public safety and the environment — and art is not the first thing that comes up on everyone’s list,” he said.
“But public art tends to create an identity in places around the world and makes those places more vibrant and open,” he said. “There are a lot of things it can help to accomplish.”
Guzzone added that “more [news] about public art will be coming soon, regarding downtown Columbia in particular.”
Egan said there’s room in the county “for a group like us to focus east of [U.S.] 29,” adding that the nonprofit’s charter is not limited to Old Ellicott City, giving the group “a lot of flexibility for future projects.”
“We’re huge believers in the impact of public art and we don’t want this to be a one-time thing,” she said.
The nonprofit’s board will seek input from the historic preservation commission and the property owners before mural contest winners are chosen, Egan said, adding that the caliber of submissions will determine whether murals are greenlighted for all four locations.
“We want the mural contest to be fun and cool and thought-provoking. I hope we get so many entries that we have to make difficult choices.”