The scene is the Mountain City Center for the Arts in Frostburg and the star is Coty Warn Forno, playing the character of a hometown girl who never thought she’d come back here to start a business.
But life and plots twist this way: In 2013, Forno, was living in California, acting, singing and dancing, when she realized the happiest she had been was when she was teaching at conservatory in Pittsburgh. “I really had a passion for it,” Forno, AGE, said of the side gig she started as an extra way to earn money.
Home in Frostburg one weekend for a friend’s wedding, she noticed an empty bank downtown, a historic building charming enough for Forno to think she could changes its fiduciary ways and make it an arts center.
“At the time, it felt really crazy,” she said. “But I thought I would just see what would happen.”
Three years later, Mountain City Center for the Arts has more than 300 students, 16 teachers and staff and offerings that include musical theater, acting, guitar, voice, piano and the range of dance offerings – ballet, tap, jazz and contemporary. This month, it will also move into a bigger, renovated space – also in downtown Frostburg – to accommodate its growth.
“When you think of the arts in this state, you traditionally think of Baltimore,” Forno said. “But the Frostburg area has been so supportive, and the students are hungry for this because they don’t get much of this in school.”
Entrepreneurship is not new to Forno. For the past 55 years, her family has run the Hen House restaurant in Garrett County. Her brother, Tyler, is the head chef, and this summer they will launch a food truck, the Chicken Coop.
“There is a lot that comes with being a business owner that’s hard. But there is a lot that’s fabulous,” Forno said. “Honestly, I couldn’t be happier. It’s hard to make a career in the arts. There isn’t a moment that goes by that I don’t feel blessed and lucky to be able to do this.”
Picturing her career
Julia Di Bussolo was a photography student at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) when she became involved in community art projects with her classmates and professors. The work was dynamic and exciting – and led to a master’s degree in community art and then to her first job as the after-school director at the Club at Collington Square in East Baltimore. The program, which is run by Episcopal Community Services, brought art to the neighborhood level, Di Bussolo said, and included everything from day-to-day projects for students and their families to a mural funded by the National Endowment of the Arts.
The daily chance to inspire and create was gratifying, Di Bussolo, 33, said. So was the fact that both Baltimore and MICA provide the kind of community in which an artist can thrive.
“I’ve had really wonderful mentors along the way, supporting my nonprofit work and me as a community artist,” Di Bussolo said. “It’s always wonderful to have a network of people who learned along the way and can share that with you.”
For the past four years, Di Bussolo has led Arts Every Day, an organization that moves beyond one individual Baltimore neighborhood and looks at ways to bring art to students across the city. As executive director, Di Bussolo oversees everything from museum trips for schools that otherwise wouldn’t have the funding to programs that bring working artists to schools for a few days or even weeks.
The group’s latest efforts are to create permanently installed art – in most cases, murals or mosaics – to build a sense of community. At one high school where a high number of students have been affected by violence, a mosaic is giving them “the space and time to heal through art,” Di Bussolo said. “They can share with the world who they are and what they believe in.”
The inspiration was not lost on Di Bussolo, who regularly advocates with elected officials for policies and budgets that allow for greater arts access. “One of the things that really excited me about my job was the ability to make an impact not just on a neighborhood, but on a systemic level,” she said.
In that way, she said she couldn’t have envisioned a better path for her career. Even if she had painted it herself.