Culture vulture brings vision and goals to 30-year-old Arts Council of Calvert County
by Carrie Steele
Where people dwell, arts get a foothold.
When the Arts Council of Calvert County began 30 years ago, the county was home to some 37,000 people. Since then, Maryland’s fastest-growing county has added more than 50,000 new residents.
“Back then, it was very much a smaller organization, and I think they saw themselves in a smaller way,” says Arlaine Freeman, a transplant from southern Scotland to Lusby, whose business savvy landed her the job of expanding the range of Calvert’s arts.
“Our main job is to promote artistic excellence, arts education and arts awareness,” says the confident yet reserved brunette in dark-rimmed glasses, whose conversation resonates with a Scottish burr.
The Arts Council has been doing that for 30 years in a very quiet way. When Freeman took over as the director in 2004, she began to make some noise.
Pulling up Anchor
“Thirty years ago, there were artists within the county who did their thing, but there weren’t artistic endeavors happening on a grand scale,” says Freeman.
That’s when the Arts Council formed, hoping to make local performers and artists more successful while bringing art to residents.
That role has evolved, said Freeman. “Not only do we want to have programs for everyone in the county, we also offer services to other arts organizations, like our grants program that awards over $20,000 to other arts programs and schools in the county.”
Now there are four and five bigger performances a year, plus the Sundays of Note jazz series, an arts summer camp, bus trips to arts metropolises along the East Coast and a grants program. The Council also sponsors and sells tickets to other groups’ performances.
Most visible of its achievements is the new 2,600-square-foot CalvART Gallery co-op in Prince Frederick, which has room for 30 artists plus a reception room and conference space.
“This space is available to the community and artists who are just starting and don’t have shows,” Freeman said.
Thus it’s an arts incubator for the county. With each performance, exhibit and event, Calvert Countians get more art and learn how to enjoy that art as artists are seen and heard.
Taking the Wheel
As on any voyage, there are rough waters as well as smooth.
Securing funding is the primary challenge, as it is for arts organizations in Annapolis, D.C. and everywhere else.
“The arts is considered an add-on, or a fluff item,” Freeman said. “But can you imagine waking up in the morning with no color in your life? You could not turn on the radio or a TV. You’d open a magazine and there’d be nothing there, because no one had written anything and there’s no photography.
“People don’t understand that art is everywhere in their life every minute of every day. So I think the whole thing of seeing art as an add-on is a misunderstanding.”
A second challenge has been training people to accept Calvert art.
“You have more people in the north of the county that have daily access to D.C. or Annapolis. That’s where they’re working, so they have a little different taste than people who’ve been in the county a long time,” says Freeman. Big city performers like jazz musicians give the Arts Council bait to compete for the attentions of residents who frequently travel beyond county lines. That’s a trend that’s turned Sundays of Note to jazz.
A third challenge is finding space for Calvert artists to perform.
With no central public stage, performers usually step onto a school stage. In the north of the county, that’s Mary Harrison Cultural Center, on the grounds of the Northern High School complex. Midway down Route 2-4, the new Huntingtown High School’s auditorium opens its curtains to Calvert performers. Either way artists have to work around the school’s schedule.
The Arts Council’s vision is for Calvert County to have its own performing arts center, with gallery space and studio space.
“It’s a tall order, but that’s what we’re working for,” Freeman says. “No matter what group you were, whether you’re the COSMIC or Patuxent Tobacco Players, your performance would be at the Calvert Performing Arts building. The town I grew up in in Scotland had the Gild Hall. Everyone knew if you were doing anything, it was at Gild Hall.”
In Annapolis, that place is Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. In northern Anne Arundel County, it’s Chesapeake Arts Center. Both are refurbished high schools.
Plans for such a center a new one built to order are already underway. At this stage, the Council’s forming committees and in discussion with a builder and an architect. Freeman anticipates breaking ground within three years.
Freeman left Scotland when she was 24 to move with her mother and American stepfather to Calvert County. Urban D.C. drew her. There, she worked in the Scottish Affairs Office at the British Embassy and also at Rothschild Inc, global financial advisors.
Family ties she’s mother of five-and-a-half-year-old twins and another school-age son called her back to Calvert. The Council’s search for a director sent her back to work.
“I had grown up with opera, theater, classical music. My mother is a culture-vulture, as we say in Scotland,” Freeman says.
When the Arts Council advertised, “I thought I have to have that job. It’s my job,” she said. “They had the vision. I think one of the biggest things I’ve brought is confidence. You can see something and say that’s what I want to do. But there’s a difference between seeing that, believing it and working to get there. I knew how to get them there.”
The Council’s voyage has raised it from a fledgling arts organization to one comparable to the councils of many of Maryland’s counties.
“As far as the other 24 arts councils in the state, we’re in the middle of the pack. The bigger cities like Annapolis are obviously head and shoulders above where we’re at because they have the funding, the facilities,” Freeman said. “That’s where we aspire to go.”
Sailing to 1950’s New York
Keeping the coffers full takes support from county residents.
The Council’s fundraising solution is an annual arts gala. At last year’s event, Calvert impresario and big-band leader Doc Scantlin recreated a Paris cityscape in Solomons. This year, the Eric Felten Orchestra captures the flavor of New York’s social world in the 1950s.
“The whole event is art. From the minute you park your car at the Holiday Inn, somebody greets you. Last year it was people speaking in French, this year it’s a taxi cab driver from New York. Then you’re coming in the subway and have to give a subway token to get through the doors,” Freeman said. The Brooklyn Bridge and Coney Island lead into ballrooms transformed to replicate 1950s’ New York.
Guests are invited to copy the actors and dress for a night out on the town, men in slick suits Frank Sinatra might have worn, women in cocktail dresses.
Visual as well as performing art helps recreate the era. Last year in Paris, guests fed on bite-sized lessons on Impressionism. This year, the lesson is why abstract art boomed in post-World War II 1950s.
“With the proliferation of photography, there really wasn’t any reason for artists to paint real-life pictures, because a photograph took a picture and it was done so much better,” Freeman said. “That’s when the Jackson Pollocks of the world decided well if we can’t paint this man dying in the trenches, then let’s look at something entirely different. That’s where abstract art morphed forms, different colors originated. And that’s the kind of way we like to make people think.”
Spend Springtime in New York with the Calvert Arts Council Saturday, March 25 from 6:30-11pm at Holiday Inn Select in Solomons. $75 w/discounts: 410-257-7005; www.calvertarts.org.