Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Here’s what friends are for.This music business is interesting. Not making music (that’s another wonderful story), but bringing the music to an audience. Or, more precisely, luring the audience to the music. Making the connections.

Prospects were dim and getting dimmer Saturday evening at Hagerstown’s City Park. Showtime for one of my favorite Bluegrass bands—Dead Men’s Hollow--was 7pm. I arrived about 5pm, and eased my truck into a soggy, muddy spot next to the park’s early-20th Century band shell. I was alone. Hail and torrents of rain swept across the park. I expected that the weather might clear within an hour, but would anyone show up? You’ll understand a little why I was nervous; the concert series is paid for by the City of Hagerstown with the support of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau. We need to deliver.

The band, Dead Men’s Hollow, arrived on schedule (in a variety of hybrids and SUVS and minivans, all from different spots of metro DC). The sound crew arrived. The sun came out. And soon came a few hundred people who love Bluegrass music, rain or shine. As the evening progressed, hundreds more arrived to hear the magic.

It turned out to be a lovely evening in the park. There’s no sound quite like Dead Men’s Hollow. Excellent vocal harmonies, warm and precise instrumentals, good humor. Plus a repertoire of traditions blended with fresh and fun and poignant new compositions. This is living music. It reassures, it inspires, and it soars.

The Washington County Arts Council first booked Dead Men’s Hollow early in their years together. They started as a backyard pick-n-sing group in 2001. I was brand-new in my job, trying to figure out what the direction of this concert series was going to be. Somehow, and I don’t remember how, we connected in the summer of 2004 and have been together ever since. They’ve gone on to play all sorts of venues, from neighborhood parties to the Kennedy Center and the Strathmore. They’ve recorded CDs, and have been nominated for ten Wammies (Washington Area Music Association Awards) and won three of them, including Best Bluegrass Group and Bluegrass Album of the Year. Here in Hagerstown, we’re probably not in the upper echelon of the venues they play. But they love coming here. I really don’t remember how I found them in the first place, but once I heard them and met them, I decided they were an essential part of our series every summer. As long as I’m here, they’ll be here.

How is that decided? Music is a special business. You have to trust your own ears, your own eyes, and your own instinct about who can deliver what your community needs to experience. I felt in my gut that Dead Men’s Hollow had the real grace and truth to communicate with this audience. And you have to follow your instincts and your knowledge, whether it be a bluegrass concert series, a blues festival, or the work of a professional symphony orchestra. Authenticity and trust are the keys. And professional, respectful relationships cement that trust. All overseen by a lot of luck, chance, and unexpected friendships. It’s music.

I felt a little emotional tonight when Dead Men’s Hollow publicly thanked me personally for being with them from the beginning. I should be thanking them, rather. They do my job for me. I was just responding to what they put out there. And so I thank them now. Can’t wait to bring them back next year! They bring the music I need to hear. The music we need to hear.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Their turn.

Summary: downtown Hagerstown is coming back, but not in the way that we were thinking. Read on.

One morning this week, various officials from the five counties of Western Maryland (Garrett, Allegany, Washington, Frederick, Carroll) convened in downtown Hagerstown. Tourism directors, arts council directors, and downtown development managers met up at the Washington County Arts Council Gallery on the Public Square. After a half hour of coffee from our new neighbors at Skyline Coffee, introductions, welcoming remarks and Krumpe's Do-Nuts (a family-owned Hagerstown business since the 1930s, and at $27 for five dozen, what could be better on a chilly January morning than some Krumpe's?) the 30-odd (well, not so odd, actually) colleagues marched up the street for some creative activity and conversation at the Potomac Bead Company. The day continued with a tasty lunch at Duffy's on Potomac, some fascinating facts and figures from Tom Riford of the Hagerstown Washington County Convention & Visitors Bureau about Washington County history and future, and a tour of other downtown developments such as the Gourmet Goat and the fabulous new loft apartment in the Goat's upper storeys, surely an example of how comfortably life can be lived in downtown Hagerstown.

Note: click on any photo to embiggen for the loveliness.

Okay, of course, it was an opportunity just ripe for showing-off how far our downtown has come in recent years. There was nothing half-rate about anything, from the art in the WCAC Gallery to the service at Duffy's. But something else occurred to me during our show-and-tell. A majority of these chic, enjoyable success stories in downtown Hagerstown are the result of hard work, creativity, and chutzpah on the part of some relatively young entrepeneurs who are ignoring chronic nay-sayers in our community. Here's a non-exhaustive catalog of that youthful cohort who (that? which? is? are? .... life is confusing in a fast-forward community) making our community bloom again:

Early on (okay, three or four years ago) two young women got Hagerstown Magazine not only off the ground, but went on to establish a thriving publishing company which recently launched a new business magazine, Smart Company (their names are Kate Rader and Andrea Rowland, and if they offer you an advertising contract, you may as well give in without struggle because they will win). And Kate and Andrea are only the start of an amazing network of young business people re-creating our downtown. There are excellent high-tech design and marketing firms and retailers all around the Public Square. Skyline Coffee, Duffy's, Potomac Bead Company, High Rock Interactive, Demcore Development, WCAC Gallery, Alter Ego Clothing, Bentley's Bagels, all run by business people who were in diapers during the Carter Administration (note: my first presidential vote helped Jimmy Carter get into the White House; it was 1976 and I was in college; do the math). As an arts administrator, it both makes me proud and gives me pause to realize that the Maryland Symphony Orchestra's very able executive director is younger than my driver's license.

Now add to that mix various recent arrivals, meaning persons not born in the U.S. Excellent meals to be had at Durango on Washington Street. And, seriously, there is no comfort food more effective than the kabobs at Leila's on East Franklin. Plus, just a couple weeks ago I noticed a new Mexi-mart at the corner of Antietam and Locust; can't wait to check that out!

Of course there are savvy downtown citizens and entrepeneurs who maybe have a decade or so head start on these uppity eager youngsters. We'd be lost without our stalwart never-say-die businesses: Tom Newcomer at R. Bruce Carson Fine Jewelry; Carol & Company; Hoffman Clothiers; Bickel's Ski Shop, DatAchieve, not to mention The Plum, Rhubarb House, and of course the Maryland Theatre. Go just a block in one direction or another, and find gems like Potomac Seafood on East Franklin Street (my Eastern Shore relatives swear it's the best, and they are Very Picky About Their Seafood). Or there's that swell flurry of women's clothing shops around the corner of Potomac and Franklin. But... there's something irrepressibly new happening in historic downtown Hagerstown. Finally, this time, I think, maybe this once, the race is to the swift, the battle to the strong. We are blessed with a good share of each. Downtown is ours for the making. Let's do it.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Pretty. Cool.

Katie stopped in today to show us a quilt she created. She makes a lot of cool things, such as the wierd eskimo dolls currently on display in our gallery storefront. But this quilt is just delightful, and reminds me what a great medium textiles can be. If this inspires you to stop by the fabric store and get creative, go with it. I especially like the rail crossing and the graffiti artist. Embiggen for impressive detail.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Just in time for the holidays, a new exhibit at the WCAC Gallery, "2x2" -- featuring dozens upon dozens of 2-inch-square works by several local artists. Here are a few of them. Embiggen for fabulousness!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Here's how it's done

Holiday performance traditions do not just occur naturally. Here's a drive-by scene that illustrates perfectly the glamourous back-breaking labor behind the scenes of some of the holiday's best. Honest, I wasn't trolling for material, I was just parking the truck on North Potomac Street and saw something interesting.

Here you have some of the volunteer board members I witnessed this morning on North Potomac Street, loading props and scenery into a rental truck, preparing for load-in at the Maryland Theatre for the Potomac Classical Youth Ballet's production of The Nutcracker. It was way below freezing, and the season's first snowfall was still on the ground from the night before. Chilly: very. Inspiring: VERY MUCH. These folks have done so much to run a quality program for young dancers over the past ten years that it is not possible to give them too much acknowledgement. The combination of young artists committed to their art, with adults who recognize passion and potential and and then answer with solid support is a wonderful thing to behold. Even when to the ordinary observer it's a bunch of middle-aged folks hauling assorted crap into a parking lot to a rental truck in the freezing snow.
Also, here's a sweet photo from last year's production to give you an indication of the colorful quality of this performance. It is charming, it is excellent, and it might be just the thing that reminds you of why we have a holiday season anyway. If we've ever needed a reminder, this is the year, and if we've ever been given a reminder, this is it.
At the Washington County Arts Council, we aim to encourage (and fund) artistic excellence, and this company of young people respond with a fabulous performance year after year. Speaking for the WCAC, we have good reason to be proud of this lovely program. May it continue for young dancers and appreciative audiences forever.

The Potomac Classical Youth Ballet performances of The Nutcracker are at the Maryland Theatre Saturday, December 8 at 7:30pm and Sunday, December 9 at 3pm. Give yourself a special gift and see this performance. It's been said that Christmas is for the young. Here's an instance where the young give Christmas to us. Do it. You can order tickets online from the Maryland Theatre, or call them to reserve at 301-790-3500.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

My bologna has a first name.

Sometimes, art comes and finds you. Sometimes, the most intriguing visuals appear not only in our gallery space, but also on the streets of downtown Hagerstown. And a vision appeared in front of the arts council this morning and I couldn't resist dashing out to capture it in its rich wierdness. Or wierd richness. Truly an International Coffees moment to savour. The odd thing is that no one else noticed, or at least no one mentioned this icon of American pop culture pausing at a stoplight in the heart of the Hub City . Passers-by, drivers, no one seemed interested or tickled or even puzzled. Surely the load of kids on the schoolbus following the weiner should have been delirious, but nary a peep from the inmates. But is it so odd that no one seemed to notice? I'm thinking maybe not so much. Maybe corrective measures need to be taken. I feel some public art coming. No, not just murals. Something nuts and exuberant and unexpected. And excellent. As my college roommate used to say when he got a crazy but excellent idea about shaking things up, Let's Dance.

The last time I saw the weiner-mobile was in Illinois in 1963. It's gotten more swoopy and streamlined, but still a sight to behold.

Maybe I'll turn my snapshots into art for our December exhibition

But we got a lot more comin'

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Happy birthday to us! we? us?

This evening the Washington County Arts Council celebrated-in a modest way-its 40th birthday. The proceedings involved handing out $19,950 in grants to local arts projects. Also there were a case or two of not-so-bad wine, several dozen representatives of organizations, public officials, artists, and general supporters; the local press. Also, since this is a birthday, an absolutely fabulous cake from Cones & Bones Bakery, our neighbors here on the Square in downtown Hagerstown.

Okay, first, the cake. Almond cake with cream cheese and apricot filling, encrusted with toasted almonds outlining the figure of the arts council's logo! Really the swellest thing anyone has done for us lately, and it certainly overshadowed our mediocre wine selections. Buy your pies and cakes from Bones & Cones... (I bought three pies last year for Thanksgiving, and they were so good that I didn't get any)

Great evening overall. It is great to support long-standing programs, but it is exciting to provide funding to brand-new programs. Good luck to our newbies. And God bless our oldies. This is such an advantaged community with arts opportunities. And there is SO MUCH on the horizon. Stay tuned.