In every corner of Montgomery County, arts groups are launching big fund-raising drives.
Some of the money will build new stages. Some will expand present ones. Some will pay for arts spaces inside new urban towers.
In all, these groups hope to raise more than $110 million. That is substantial by any measure--roughly triple the Kennedy Center's annual fund drive and more than the annual budget for the National Endowment for the Arts.
The caldron of activity raises several questions: First, can all of these Montgomery County fund drives succeed? Second, will the more aggressive organizations bleed the county's donors dry?
In addition, the Montgomery arts boom--coming on top of the major performance venues already flourishing beyond the District such as Wolf Trap, the Patriot Center, Nissan, Merriweather Post and the University of Maryland--raises questions about what happens as the arts follow the affluent beyond the Beltway. Will this choke off downtown's current resurgence as an entertainment center?
The fund drives will produce three important new arts buildings by 2003. The Strathmore Hall Arts Center in North Bethesda will be the largest--able to seat 2,000 for concerts. But the BlackRock Center for the Arts in Germantown will provide a variety of new arts spaces, too. And the Olney Theatre Center for the Arts is adding a second theater, which will seat 400.
Meanwhile, the acclaimed Round House Theatre, which has been stuck in a constricted, out-of-the-way facility in Silver Spring, plans to move its main operations into a new 400-seat theater nestled inside a Chevy Chase Bank complex in downtown Bethesda. Round House also hopes to operate two new sites in Silver Spring. The Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts will be consolidating two locations in Rockville and Bethesda into one and will share space with a county-owned garage in downtown Bethesda. The Maryland College of Art and Design, now in upper Silver Spring, has its eye on a space in the future overhaul of the city's downtown.
Here's what five arts honchos are trying to raise: Olney, $16 million; Bethesda Academy, $7 million; Strathmore, $68 million; BlackRock, $5 million; Round House, $6 million.
They are cautious, accustomed to the struggles of the nonprofit arts world. But they all decided independently that the current sustained economic boom gives them a chance to catch their dreams.
"They have seized the moment because it may be a small window," says Theresa A. Cameron, executive director of the Arts Council of Montgomery County. "Folks have talked about it for so long that finally the sun and moon came together."
Arts supporters outside Montgomery are worried about the splintering of the audiences, especially Strathmore Hall's impact on the Kennedy Center and other classical music venues, and the additional jousting with the massive University of Maryland arts complex opening 15 miles away in neighboring Prince George's County. Will there be enough top-name performers?
Eliot Pfanstiehl, the Strathmore executive director, says the collective expansion will simply serve a growing audience, not divide the existing one.
"We believe, based on our research, that there is a huge potential audience for live performances who live in the [Interstate] 270 and Georgia Avenue corridors. They are art attenders who don't currently go downtown for arts performances for many reasons, including travel time," he says.
A marketing study done for officials planning the BlackRock Center, a 32,000-square-foot building with theaters, gallery and studios in Germantown, estimated that 100,000 residents will live within five miles of the center by 2001, and 600,000 will live within 15 miles. Numbers like that have helped convince powerful politicians, including Gov. Parris Glendening and County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, to give the arts centers their enthusiastic backing.
The state legislature is allocating $8 million to arts groups throughout Maryland this year. The county has doubled the amount it gives to many major arts centers in the last year or two. Larger groups are getting $661,000 this year, compared with $319,000 a year earlier. Smaller groups will get $40,000, compared with $25,000 a year ago.
"We have all hit this point in our growth cycles at the same time. The growth is there on the income side," says Wesley Paulson, the president of Maryland College of Art.
The demographics of Montgomery County favor fundraising for the arts, too. Montgomery has long had one of the highest median incomes in the country and boasts a diverse, well-educated population. The county is attracting new businesses with growing payrolls and employees who want more than soccer fields and stadium-seating cineplexes.
The largest project on the boards to fill that demand is the Strathmore Hall Arts Center, , where ground will be broken in the spring of 2001. The 160,000-square-foot center will have a substantial educational complex, as well as serve as a second home for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and a primary place for the Montgomery County Youth Orchestra, the National Chamber Orchestra, Masterworks and other groups.
Strathmore is being closely watched by arts groups. Some are not happy, and say the fund-raising will siphon off their funds.
For instance, the Kennedy Center has to work hard to raise $37 million a year for its programs, despite its 60-member board and the prestige of its national platform. Strathmore will have to push to raise the $68 million in public and private money it needs for its new building. There has already been a minor dust-up over public funding. In the legislature this past session, there was an argument between advocates for Glen Echo Park, home to several arts groups, and supporters of Strathmore over which was more in need.
Pfanstiehl says even the suburban entities shouldn't fret. He says, for example, that his project doesn't lessen the need for the new University of Maryland performing arts center. There is "only 4 percent overlap" between Strathmore and the Prince George's customers in the university's orbit.
But the downtown arts centers depend on suburban audiences for their bread and butter. Forty percent of National Symphony Orchestra ticket buyers come to the Kennedy Center from Montgomery County. Overall, the Kennedy Center programs attract 66 percent of their audiences from the suburbs. At Arena Stage, a staggering 80 percent of ticket buyers come from the suburbs.
The need for space is the overriding factor in this drive for expansion. "We have been programming and building an audience for 50 years. That part is done. Now we need to give them a building," says Debra L. Kraft, the managing director of Olney. Throughout the year Olney programs reach 135,000 people, and the space shortcomings have led them to curtail some of their collaborations on site, Kraft says.
Performance space is at a premium throughout the county. The respected Liz Lerman Dance Exchange is one of the vagabond arts groups moving from auditorium to hall for different engagements. In 1997 the dance troupe moved its offices, classes and rehearsals into a converted post office in Takoma Park, but it still doesn't have theater space. Now the group is hoping to turn an adjoining building into a performance space. "It's a bit more than just on our wish list," says David Minton, the company's managing director, who says the project would cost about $500,000. The National Council for the Traditional Arts, an established promoter of folk arts based in Silver Spring, is also looking for performance space.
Already firmly in the works is the move of the American Film Institute (AFI) from the Kennedy Center to the historic and shuttered Silver Theater in Silver Spring. The AFI's movie theater will be a principal draw of an entertainment complex, with its plans for a documentary film festival, video exhibition center and the usual film retrospectives.
To make sure none of this activity produces a cultural white elephant, the Arts Council of Montgomery County, an arm of Duncan's government, is initiating a Community Cultural Plan. Starting this month, the organizers are pulling in leaders from various sectors of the community to test the broadest support for the plan, study models from other parts of the country and develop a blueprint for stabilization. The council has hired Jerry Allen and Associates, a firm that worked on a similar plan in Silicon Valley, to help with the study process.
"We have so many plans that we need an overall view," says Cameron. "We all knew this is great, but the question is, how will we support it?"
But there is a build-it-and-they-will-come posture in Montgomery.
"One of the corporations we approached said they would be embarrassed not to support us. And why not, this is going to be a significant building and landmark," says Bonnie Fogel of the Bethesda Academy. Her group will use the money to move into the garage-theater building where they will have a school and a stage. It will increase the academy's space from 16,000 square feet in two locations to 36,000 square feet. She hopes it will open in June.
Others, sensing that Montgomery is the next wave, are starting to pack their bags. Pyramid Atlantic, the paper workshop, is planning to leave Prince George's next spring after 19 years, and join a digital imaging and animation company.
Says Helen Frederick, the group's director, "This is the hot spot that is going to happen right now."