Passing on the torch of local arts

.John Harding
.John Harding (File photo)

It was a great experience being arts editor in Howard County the past 25 years. This was a dream job for a guy like me and I can't believe I'm walking away from it this week with nary a kick nor a scream.

I'll always treasure the opportunities the job gave me to meet many of the founders who helped the new-born Columbia open its eyes and ears: Jim and Patty Rouse, Ellen Kennedy, Toby Orenstein, Eva Anderson, Norman Winkler, Lou Eisenhauer, Catherine McLoughlin-Hayes, Prudence Barry, Jack Farrell, Lucille Clifton, Doris and Claude Ligon, Frances Dawson and so many others.


It's inspiring to note how often their concerns extended to trying to uplift and educate the next generations of arts lovers.

In a league of her own was Jean Moon, who gave Columbia a voice. Husband Bob Moon designed the slanted glass facade of the Columbia Flier building as a sort of reflection on the universe of possibilities and Jean's busy office became a touchstone for me and the growing New City.


Jean assembled a great staff of writers and designers, managers and photographers and attracted some top-notch colleagues to raise the bar on suburban arts coverage: Geoffrey Himes, Carolyn Kelemen, Stephen Prince, Mike Giuliano, Jack Dillinger and Carlton King, for starters.

All of the above were more notable for me than the famous strangers who passed through Columbia in the last quarter-century — though that list was also pretty amazing: Isaac Bashevis Singer, Seamus Heaney, Saul Bellow, Edward Albee, Roland Flint, Gwendolyn Brooks, Stanley Kunitz and on and on.

As an arts reporter and then as editor, I watched the vibrant Howard County art scene develop. My colleagues and I covered the growth of Howard Arts United and the arrival of the Howard County Arts Council, the inauguration of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, the founding of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company and Rep Stage, and the renaissance of Howard Community College as a broader cultural resource.

Personally, I had my hits and misses. I wrote about the final plans for the new Jim Rouse Theatre (I was against them), and championed the participation of Howard County high schools in the nationwide Cappies Awards program (it was suspended).

Merriweather Post Pavilion was a local drawing card long before I arrived and old-timers still talk about going there to see Jimi Hendrix, Judy Garland, Rudolph Nureyev, Jerry Garcia, Frank Zappa, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tony Bennett and countless more. Who is coming next summer — Lady Gaga?

The changes have been astonishing and popular culture was at the nexus of that shift. If I have one fear as I turn over my desk to a new editor, it is that some future Gibbon may fairly write of us that America's culture wars were lost on our watch.

I recently published a DVD column that began "Another week, another tasteless porno-comedy in search of mainstream audiences." It was not hyperbole. We are being barraged by movies and plays populated by dissolute, disheartened or defeated characters with no moorings to their communities and no spiritual rudders at all.

To our readers who wrote in over the years to complain about the near-total monopoly of R-rated movies in Columbia, the various vulgarities finding their way into art galleries and the increasing lack of moral standards and decency on broadcast TV ... well, we must all kick up the volume of protests or we will lose the very community we hoped to build.

Newspaper critics used to loosen their ties and rip into that job. Heaven knows what will happen when the pop culture becomes mainly the purview of bloggers in pajamas.

Happily, there are still good works around to renew one's hope for the future. There's a first-rate touring company of "The Lion King" at the Hippodrome Theatre, for instance, that had us in the opening night audience grinning and clapping with tears streaming down our cheeks for its themes of cultural continuity and the triumph of righteousness over chaos and greed.

Toby's Dinner Theatre has been a sustaining reservoir for family entertainment throughout my tenure. It currently has a sparkling live staging of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" as its cup of holiday cheer.

More shows with upbeat messages and new generations of musicians and dancers and actors will be coming along with their own visions. They need to be heard and seen, and patrons and critics must help them find the justification for their gifts.


If Columbia is to become a cultural model, we still need corporate developers' help in building a downtown destination where the arts are visible and accessible to all. Columbians have to rise above the notion that the rich are nothing but society's parasites. Even Shakespeare needed a patron.

As for me, I am like the old Saturday matinee serial — "to be continued," though on another day. Thank you, Columbia. Sail on.

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