Photographer Rod Burr recalls the days in Howard County when local artists had a hard enough time finding places to produce their works. Having someplace to exhibit them was barely a possibility.

"Everybody was kind of working in isolation," said Burr, who lives in Fulton.

But much has changed, and over the years the county's visual arts scene has blossomed, art supporters say. Consider last weekend's Road to the Arts, an annual gallery tour promoting the opening of the 1999-2000 exhibition season.

The tour, sponsored by the Howard County Arts Council and celebrating its 10th year, had 15 galleries participating and attracted hundreds of people over two nights. The tour began as a one-night event and featured seven galleries in 1996, according to organizers.

Last weekend's event also featured receptions offering opportunities to chat with artists and visit their studios.

"This is the kind of thing you see in Baltimore and Washington. It's evidence of the growth of support and involvement in the visual arts in Howard County," said Barr, who coordinated "Then and Now," an exhibit featuring works of members of the disbanded Visual Artists Alliance, the county's first artists organization. The exhibit, on display through Oct. 2 at Slayton House Gallery in Columbia, includes the artists' current works as well as those created when the group operated in the 1980s.

"It really indicates a maturing of the local arts scene. We've come a long way from the mid-'80s when there was never a concept of doing this," Barr said.

Colleen West, executive director of the Arts Council, said the event puts an annual spotlight on local visual artists and galleries, which have to compete with other arts and cultural events for the public's attention. This year's participants included galleries in Columbia, Ellicott City, Savage and Oella. Many of the featured exhibits will be on display throughout September and some will continue into October and November.

"It's a really good way to pull everybody together and kick off the season," West said.

At the Howard County Center for the Arts in Ellicott City last weekend, visitors browsed through two exhibits, "Contemporary Sculpture: Functional or Not" and the Weavers' Guild of Greater Baltimore Fall Exhibition. The exhibits run through Oct. 22.

Sculptor Jim Opasik smiled delightedly as a woman told him how much she enjoyed his sculptures of insects created mostly out of recycled kitchen utensils. The center of his display was "Skeeter," a three-foot-tall mosquito with antennae fashioned out of golf clubs and a body made of melded vases and copper mugs. The work was priced at $2,500.

The Catonsville artist, who shows his work all over the country, said he never refuses an invitation to exhibit at the arts center.

"It's an honor to show here because people in Columbia support the arts very well," said Opasik, whose wife, Mary Deacon Opasik, also was exhibiting some of her sculptures at the center. Howard County "is like the keynote speaker. They really, really support the arts. It's great for an artist to have that feeling."

For weaver Janice Knausenberger, exhibiting at the center provided an opportunity to showcase her work that she doesn't find in her home county, Prince George's. Calling Howard County's commitment to the arts "progressive," she said she was impressed that the county had "set aside a whole center for the arts."

"Wouldn't that be nice in other counties?" said Knausenberger, who had contributed two pieces to the Weavers' Guild exhibit. "If you want to exhibit something of quality, you go out of county to exhibit."

The Rouse Co., which designed Columbia, is a major supporter of local arts along with other local businesses and organizations. Rouse was the major financial supporter behind a renovation project that created the Jim Rouse Theater for the performing arts at Wilde Lake High School in 1990.

In addition to the fall gallery tour, the county Arts Council holds its Celebration of the Arts on April 1 each year to highlight visual and performing arts. Held at the Jim Rouse Theater, the event includes performances by local artists as well as a silent auction of works by visual artists. The council also provides grants funded by county, state and fund-raising efforts to artists groups, which were awarded at a reception last weekend.

Along with providing exposure for area artists and galleries, the fall tour has become a way for art lovers to keep track of their favorite artists, a way to create a sense of community.

"People anticipate this. They know some of the artists and follow their careers," said Joan Bevelaqua, curator at the Mill River Gallery in Ellicott City. "They expect it and it's become part of the scene."