When Mike Corwin moved to Maryland from his native New York, he wanted to live where there was culture. He hardly considered settling in Prince George's County, where he is senior vice president of John Hanson Savings & Loan. Instead, he bought a home in Annapolis from which he commutes to work.
"There was nothing identifiable in Prince George's County," he said. Two other bank officials he brought with him also wound up in Anne Arundel County, largely because, he said, "I had no other answers for them."
But as a member of the newly formed Prince George's Arts Council, he feels differently. Had he known then what he's since learned, he said, he might well be living in the county where he works. "All you have to do is get in one tie-up on Rte. 50 and scratch your head," he sighed.
For the most part, the arts council consists of corporate types like Corwin, whose aim is to help the county shed its longstanding image as a "cultural wasteland" inhabited only by blue-collar workers. Their point is that the image, whether or not it was ever deserved, no longer squares with the reality and must be changed to stimulate economic development and upscale growth.
The point is not new. Winfield Kelly Jr., a former county executive, tried through his "New Quality" slogan to sell his county. He also objected to all references to "P.G.," which he regarded as reflecting a negative--if popular--perception of the place. Somehow, his objections only seemed to underscore the county's image problem rather than eliminate it.
The unpopular popular perception came under pointed public attack again the other day as some 120 persons attended the arts council's kick-off luncheon at the Sheraton New Carrollton. The building by the Beltway boasts a five-story mural by artist Jim Richardson depicting Prince George's tobacco culture.
In honor of the event, Gov. Harry Hughes declared it to be Prince George's Arts Council Day in Maryland. There also were proclamations from the county executive, County Council and Del. Paulene Menes (D-Prince George's) "in recognition of the exciting integration of the Prince George's County arts activities into expanding county economic development plans." She also cited the council for "developing a prestigious board of trustees."
The businessmen and arts officials dined on flounder and prime rib and listened to the Monumental Brass Quintet, a College Park musical group, play classical selections. They also heard Martin E. Segal, chairman of the board of New York City's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, declare "first-class people" of education and affluence "would find sterile a community that doesn't have the arts."
Overshadowing the content of the event was the event itself, a symbolic start in the cultural campaign to remake the county's image. "We're really selling the concept that the arts need to be brought into the county's economic development," explained Peg Stone, the council's executive director.
A marriage must be made between business and the arts for the good of both, she said. Eventually, the council hopes to raise money for the artists themselves, as does its Montgomery County counterpart, but that's down the road a ways.
Prince George's, even its boosters would agree, is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Washington metropolitan area. It gets no, or not enough, respect. The problem, as council members see it, is getting the word out about the county that has long been regarded as a not quite ready for prime-time place.
"Our county compares very favorably with Montgomery County and Northern Virginia," said Dennis W. Madden, a Landover architect who is president of the arts council. "The problem is we've kept it all to ourselves."
To the assembled arts advocates, he noted that the county already is working with 120 separate groups and that Prince George's has its own philharmonic and symphonic orchestras, a playhouse, opera groups, art galleries and cultural centers, not to mention the University of Maryland and Prince George's Community College, where the opera "Madame Butterfly" filled all 806 auditorium seats.
"There are a lot of arts groups active, but it's almost like an underground," said Corwin, who had been instrumental in establishing an arts council for eastern Long Island before moving here. "You have to have a focal point, someone to call, to provide the information. Otherwise, you don't feed the arts psyche, and artists need recognition."
"If we could show an abundance of cultural amenities, it would be a tremendous help in attracting new companies," said John R. Fernstrom, marketing director for Washington Business Park, newly opened near Rte. 50 and the Capital Beltway--one of several such complexes to arise recently in the north central crescent cut by the Beltway through the county.
The arts in Prince George's are "more neighborhood-oriented, localized and don't get much publicity," said Fernstrom, who is also on the arts council. "They may be sold out, but they just don't make it into The Washington Post," he said. A star-filled inaugural gala at the Capital Centre, however, generated an "ugly sister" headline in the Post that long galled county citizens and officials.
"We want Prince George's to be the best, but, more than that, we want Prince George's to be perceived as the best," Madden said. "We want, once and for all, to give the 'ugly sister' a decent burial."