ANNAPOLIS — Chris and Sharon Forte like mermaids. They really, really like mermaids.
So much that they travel 1,000 miles to Annapolis — each way — from their Florida Gulf Coast home about four times a year to buy mermaid paintings.
Mermaids are kind of the theme of the couple’s waterfront home in Destin, Fla. The Fortes come to McBride Gallery on Main Street in Annapolis to add more paintings of mermaids and jesters from one of their favorite artists, Victor Nizovtsev, to the six or seven they already own.
“When we find an artist we like,” Chris Forte said, “we end up getting quite a bit of the same artist.”
Galleries and arts organizations are a major driver of economic growth for Maryland, where $37.8 million in state tax revenue was collected from arts nonprofits in 2011, according to the Maryland State Arts Council.
Annapolis has more than 20 art galleries, and Edgewater-based Wimsey Cove art gallery opened a new location in West Annapolis in March. Theater groups, the symphony, the ballet and the opera, among others, also add to this small city’s extensive arts community.
In 2012, readers of Baltimore-based AmericanStyle magazine ranked Annapolis No. 14 in a list of the Top 25 small cities for art. Annapolis made the ballot for its sheer number of galleries, museums and arts organizations.
Cynthia McBride, head of the Annapolis Gallery Association and owner of McBride Gallery, said many of the local, regional and national artists she features in her gallery have been in museum shows and are in permanent collections.
“That’s the quality of art you’ll find in Annapolis,” she said.
In July, the Washington Society of Landscape Painters is holding its centennial celebration in Annapolis, and Oil Painters of America will have its Eastern Regional Show here in October.
“National art organizations don’t come to a town unless they see it’s a growing, thriving art community,” McBride said.
Annapolis Mayor Josh Cohen said that since 2008 the city has offered income and property tax incentives for artists who live in the designated Annapolis Arts District.
Increased state investment also reflects the local arts community’s growth. Gov. Martin O’Malley increased next year’s art funding to the Maryland State Arts Council by $2 million. The General Assembly passed a budget earmarking $15.2 million to the Arts Council.
The Arts Council of Anne Arundel County spent $325,000 in arts funding this fiscal year, $201,000 of which went to organizations in Annapolis, said Arts Council program manager Brenda Collins.
Local organizations like Maryland Hall, Compass Rose Theater and the Annapolis Symphony have a collective budget of $8.8 million, support 844 full- and part-time jobs, and serve more than 800,000 patrons.
A strong arts community attracts “a certain type of consumer” whose appreciation for art carries over to other city venues, said Connie Del Signore of the Anne Arundel Conference & Visitors Bureau.
“It’s probably someone who would spend a night and weekend, who would spend more money while here,” Del Signore said. “The arts certainly give visitors a reason to stay longer in Anne Arundel County.”
Jean Opilla, whose Aurora Gallery on Maryland Avenue recently closed after nearly 30 years, said 40 percent of her customers were tourists.
Opilla said visitors from Richmond, Va., Philadelphia and even New York would return annually for the “eclectic” mix of paintings, crafts and jewelry at the gallery.
“They always say, ‘This is the first stop I make when I come here,’ ” said Opilla, who retired in March, just a couple of months shy of what would have been the gallery’s 30th anniversary.
Del Signore said the arts keep Annapolis competitive with other cities like San Antonio, Texas, Williamsburg, Va. and Newport, R.I.
McBride said customers from Virginia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania repeatedly return to McBride Gallery because they “just can’t find (this kind of art) in their own hometown.”
Annapolis is “very fortunate,” said Lara Fritts of the Annapolis Economic Development Corp., because businesses are attracted to healthy arts communities by the active consumer base and the quality of life for employees.
The arts are “definitely something we work to promote when talking with companies looking to locate here,” Fritts said.
In spite of the recent economic downturn, the arts community has stayed relatively healthy, McBride said. “Very few (galleries) have closed, and many have closed for reasons other than the economy, which happens in every business.”
Chuck Walsh, founder of ArtWalk, a nonprofit public art exhibition, visited Opilla’s Aurora Gallery several times a year with his wife over the past three decades. He is among those unhappy to see it close.
“You can’t help but be very sad about it,” he said. “I mean, you take away an anchor store like that and it’s not a good thing.”
Walsh said Aurora Gallery was a “huge pioneer” that attracted other stores and restaurants to Maryland Avenue, making it the unique commercial district it is today. Her loyal customers will need to find a new go-to store for Christmas presents.
“I had one customer say to me, ‘What will I do? My friends think I have such good taste because I always buy here,'” Opilla said.
Business has been slower the last few years, but Opilla said she would have loved for someone with as much passion for art to buy the gallery. She said the closing was more about “starting a new chapter” in her life.
“I want to travel, I’d like to read all those books I have stacked at my house,” Opilla said.
“We’re always sorry to see a friend go,” McBride said, “but Jean’s contributions to Annapolis are lasting.”