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Arts community growing in Worcester County

OCEAN CITY — As more arts lovers have moved to the area, their high expectations for cultural enrichment have led to a growing, if not thriving, arts community in Worcester County.

Ocean Pines artist Don Grafer works in his studio, one of six artist studios housed in the Berlin Chamber of Commerce on Main Street.

“Communities are realizing the importance of art in making a well-rounded place to live and vacation,” said Rena Thaler, a spokeswoman for the Art League of Ocean City.

She said demand is at an all-time high for art education and instruction, mostly from retirees and baby boomers who are seeking to “expand their creative side,” Thaler said. That burgeoning interest has increased the Art League’s membership numbers.

In fact, the Art League has gained so many new members in the last few years that it has outgrown its old building, a former pool house at 94th Street dating to the 1960s, and has broken ground on an $800,000 facility on the same site. The 7,500-square-foot property is set to open by December.

Another Art League success story comes from further involvement in the schools and in kids camp programs. Last summer, the group launched an art-themed day camp called Art Adventure Camp, and it’s held at Northside Park.

In a time when many schools are cutting back on art instruction, “people are recognizing how important art is in an educational area,” Thaler said.

In Snow Hill, residents there also are seeing growth to their arts community, said Ann Coates, owner of the fine art gallery Bishop’s Stock. She’s had the store open for nine years, but said a surge in local art interest has come in the last four to five years.

“It has grown,” she said. “Part of it is, we’ve always had a wonderful community of artists. We just haven’t always had a way to promote them. And that’s what’s changed.”

She said it helped that the state of Maryland gave Snow Hill an Arts and Entertainment District designation. It provides a modest incentive program for business development.

Coates also said the designation raised the awareness among artistic types that Snow Hill was a viable town for artists to create and showcase their work. She said it’s helped tie into the town’s monthly First Friday event, when the county seat celebrates the arts and highlights its historic downtown.

Another coup for Snow Hill has been luring a group of plein air artists to town. It had a plein air event in April that sold out and garnered a great response, Coates said, selling 53 paintings for the artists.

Coates said while Annapolis had the first plein air event — that’s artists painting outdoors — Snow Hill was next. Berlin and Ocean City have since tried one, too.

Snow Hill hopes to enliven its locals’ own artistic sensibilities by holding art classes in the upstairs of the old firehouse. Coates said members of the town’s Arts and Entertainment Committee are considering offering low-cost art instruction classes, taught by area artists, at the site.

Coates said the response has been positive.

“The performers and the artists are particularly appreciative of the recognition, and the community, likewise, is suddenly turned onto those who are creative in their midst. When you find out your neighbor has a beautiful voice or can paint, it’s very rewarding. I call it a quality-of-life factor as much as anything else.”

In Pocomoke City, the hub of its cultural revolution is the Mar-Va Theater, according to Angela Manos, a spokeswoman for the town. Plays and movies are shown there regularly.

Also in Pocomoke, the Delmarva Discovery Center Museum Gift Shop features works by many local artists, including painters, carvers, jewelry-makers and photographers. The center also hosts a variety of artists, lecturers and musicians year-round.

“We are definitely working towards enhancing the arts scene here in Pocomoke,” she said.

In Berlin, there’s a new home for artists in the historic downtown.

“We’re promoting the town through the arts, and I think it’s been working for both the artists and the town,” said Michael Day, the town’s director of economic development.

With grant money, the town bought a downtown building and moved the Berlin Chamber of Commerce there. It created a welcome center and put in $50,000 worth of renovations to create six new artist studios. Gov. Martin O’Malley cut the ribbon last summer on the project.

“It’s like our own mini-Torpedo Factory,” said Day, referring to the Alexandria, Va., space where many artists have 24-7 access to studios. “I think it came out much better than I’d even envisioned.”

So far, four of six artist booths are taken. Artists pay $250 per month plus utilities, while the Chamber takes 30 percent of the sale price of any piece of artwork, Day said.

Berlin also wants to keep its musical arts scene lively, Day said, with more festival-type music events. It also will be adding a new event called RocktoberFest, an event dedicated to rock music. That will be followed by polka music and Octoberfest the very next day, Day said.

Day said the Friday arts events are growing in popularity, and it helps that each of the local municipalities — Snow Hill with its First Friday, Berlin has Second Friday, Salisbury has Third Friday — all cross-promote each other’s efforts.

“It’s a very cooperative movement on the Shore and in this area,” he said.