Frederick is a “celebration of the arts,” according to a profile on the city’s official website.
In 2011, it was named the eighth small arts city in the country by AmericanStyle magazine. It’s lumped in with Silver Spring and Rockville as one of the most vibrant metropolitan areas in the country, according to the National Center of Arts Research at Southern Methodist University. “Impressive architecture and public art works abound in the historic district where you’re never more than a few blocks from one of four impressive performance and fine art centers,” the city’s website reads. There’s references to special events, too, including gallery walks that have since transformed into the city’s First Saturday celebrations.
“On 22 weekends each year, downtown Frederick and neighboring 54-acre Baker Park play host to special events,” the city’s website trumpets. “[They] include weekly summer concerts, monthly gallery walks, children’s theatrical performances, and other events that celebrate the season.”
Still, there’s a lingering sense of something lacking. For some artists in Frederick — especially younger artists — a new source of inspiration lies 30 minutes to the north.
Of the more than a dozen artists interviewed for this series, the majority, unprompted, cited Hagerstown as an aspirational example of new arts initiatives. The city is currently investing $1 million in renovations to the Maryland Theatre, a catalyst project considered as a top priority in the community’s 2014 City Center Plan. In 2017, the city unveiled the Hagerstown Cultural Trail, a public arts project that links downtown with the Museum of Fine Arts and includes a Technicolor abstract mural splashed across three industrial buildings. More than anything else, there’s the Engine Room Art Space, an affordable live-work space for artists that was purchased, renovated, and subsidized by the city itself.
“The fact that there’s a community-oriented space for all types of contemporary artists with no application fee is unbelievable,” said Jillian MacMaster, a local artist who lives in Frederick but works in Hagerstown at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. “I’m always in awe that Frederick doesn’t have something like this, as much as they call themselves an ‘arts town.’”
The comparisons highlight the inherent tensions in a city, and county, where some of the youngest working artists weren’t alive to witness the most exciting era of the local arts scene. Some of Frederick’s most energizing efforts came in the wake of the 1976 flood, said Rick Weldon, the CEO of the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce, when local officials were desperate to rebuild a decimated downtown.
It’s when former mayor Ron Young helped transform the old Tivoli Theatre, then a B-movie screening house, into the Weinberg Center for the Arts. The 1980s ushered in the Delaplaine Arts Center, In The Street, and first-ever Frederick Festival of the Arts, an event that once incorporated films and live performances.
The scene felt exciting, fresh. When the Weinberg opened for the first time, Young said, it hosted an off-Broadway production of a Tony award-winning musical called “The Robber Bridegroom.” The night of the performance, the leading lady literally broke her leg offstage. At the time, new groups like the Fredericktowne Players and Maryland Regional Ballet (then the Frederick Ballet Company) flocked to the city’s state-of-the-art performance venue. A few years later, individual residents raised thousands of dollars for the Community Bridge installation by artist William Cochran.
“The biggest danger now is we’re resting on our laurels,” Weldon said. There’s a prevailing sense among some artists in Frederick that the city plateaued after some of its most fruitful years. The Weinberg still hosts some community performances and the occasional classic film, but it’s better known for staid events like the Frederick Speaker Series or an upcoming concert by ‘80s musicians Eddie Money and John Waite. The former Cultural Arts Center, a community resource once operated by the nonprofit Frederick Arts Council, was sold to Ausherman Properties and now operates as the performance arts venue New Spire Stages. After a sudden reorganization by parent company New Spire Arts, the future of the venue is still unclear. There are only three performances listed on the calendar over the next three months.
“I don’t think of Frederick as an arts town, and I’ve had this conversation many times,” said Samuel Tressler IV, a local filmmaker who runs the communal studio space Area 31 on East Patrick Street.
More often than not, as detailed in this series, younger or experimental artists feel hit with a series of barriers. No to local music venues. No to significant public art installations. In Hagerstown, the defining piece of public art is a multi-story mural emblazoned with polka dots. In downtown Frederick, there’s debate over installing a train mosaic on an abandoned downtown row house. Community Bridge, the city’s defining piece of public art, is currently sporting plywood panels to cover damage to the original mural.
“We already know we’re the prettiest downtown and the sexiest suburb and one of the top counties in the country,” Weldon said. “But the danger with that is, it’s totally backward looking. Heaven forbid we get to a place where we're as desperate as we were before. And now we’re looking over the mountain at a city that said, ‘We've bottomed out, so now it's time to get a lot more open to creativity.’ Because that's what Hagerstown is doing.”
What does it take to fuel the arts?
It’s not the only small city working to cultivate a contemporary arts scene. In the 1970s and ’80s, Asheville, North Carolina was dealing with some of the same difficulties as downtown Frederick. “It was the same thing happening all over America, with suburbanization and shopping malls and the death of small downtowns,” said area developer Pat Whalen. The city was filled with vacant storefronts, and local businesses were struggling to survive.
In some ways, Asheville is a direct parallel to downtown Frederick. Both cities are relatively small with a wealth of historic architecture (Frederick’s largely dates from 1810 to 1860, according to the city website, while Asheville’s stems from the Art Deco period in the early 1900s). A 2015 article in the journal Urban Affairs Review cites Asheville’s commitment to a chain-free downtown, and the city has a council-created Downtown Commission with purview over local architectural designs.
Unlike Frederick, though, Asheville still earns nationwide attention for its local creative scene. In March, it was listed as one of the best American cities for creatives by the website Thrillist. National Geographic called the city an “experimental epicenter” in 2016. It’s home to dozens of murals, three independent movie theaters, and a stark glass office building by the late architect I.M. Pei (the same artist who designed the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre). It’s also known for more than a dozen music venues of all sizes and genres dotting the city.
Look at the trajectory of Asheville and Frederick and there are plenty of similarities, from city-launched festivals to a municipal investment in downtown parking garages. Where the cities diverge is in investment. Asheville is known for live music in large part because it was established early on in the city’s revitalization. In 1990, Whalen and Julian Price founded Public Interest Projects, a development company that purchased a concert venue called The Orange Peel.
“We kind of made a list of the kind of businesses we wanted and went from there,” Whalen said. The Fine Arts Theatre, an indie movie house, was another early business renovated by a different developer. Both venues set the stage for the city’s later development.
“Each of them was a significant missing ingredient downtown,” Whalen added. “We really thought they would help revitalize the city.”
For some local artists in Frederick, they’re the type of business that would reinforce the city’s lip service to the arts. “I’ve always wondered why we don’t have those types of amenities,” said Clark Kline, another local filmmaker who helps to organize the annual 72 Hours Film Fest.
From an economic perspective, though, it’s not that easy. Richard Griffin, the city’s director of economic development, said that several companies have initially pursued and dropped plans to create affordable live/work spaces for artists. The city has spoken to companies like Alamo Drafthouse at national conferences, but never attracted much interest. Part of it stems from the limitations of downtown itself. Strict design and safety guidelines make renovations or demolitions expensive and sometimes impossible. The downtown arts and entertainment district offers tax credits for creative industries, but the city has a significantly limited amount of commercially zoned space.
It’s an open question of whether the city or county will take a leading role in establishing amenities for local artists. Mayor Michael O’Connor allocated $50,000 for public art in the city’s latest budget, but purposefully neglected to define what “public art” entails. “It might mean commissioning new works, or it might mean conserving our existing art, but it’s a conversation I want to have,” he said.
The county’s Livable Frederick plan sets similarly ambitious goals for expanding affordable housing and creative work spaces. Like local artists, it cites the need for a regional art museum and mid-size concert venue. The Frederick Art Council recently released a master public art plan that also sets a countywide vision for public installation. Funding sources have yet to be determined. County Executive Jan Gardner publicly endorsed the plan, but her 2020 budget rejected a formal request for $550,000 from the Frederick Arts Council (the nonprofit did receive its usual allocation of $50,000). Executive director Louise Kennelly said the request would have funded the county’s first three public art projects under the new plan.
“The good news is that we’ve started a conversation,” she said. “Both the city and county are very open to listening to ideas,” and that’s a good thing.”
Other artists are grappling with a growing fatigue over complaints about the state of the local art scene. “Why don’t you interview working artists in the area to promote their work in a positive sense instead of a negative sense?” asked Ash Cheshire, a local musician and illustrator. Cheshire, along with Griffin, Kennelly, and other local artists, pointed to Sky Stage, an outdoor venue supported by the Arts Council and designed by MIT graduate Heather Clark. The project was largely funded by community donations and fast-tracked by the city government, which coordinated to prioritize the project, Clark said.
“To a large extent, I think it helped that I have a background in this,” said the artist, who studied real estate development and once oversaw the construction of affordable housing projects. “So, yes, artists need to approach their cities with ideas. But within the city, you also need people who are going to reach out and help.”