There’s a story to tell. One that’s rooted in the past and yet about to unfold.
As Frederick continues to march with the past and present in lockstep, there are conversations surrounding the potential for the arts — visual, performing and music — to transform the city into a cutting-edge, artful focal point.
When New Spire Arts producing artistic director Elizabeth Lucas says, “Frederick just feels like it’s on the cusp of enormous creative growth,” you have to take notice, take a look around the city, and imagine the possibilities of what she’s positing.
Before we go any further, it would help to give you the lowdown. New Spire Arts is, in a nutshell, a new nonprofit based in Frederick with plans to provide education and performances across all the arts. It will oversee two buildings: both in downtown Frederick, New Spire Stages is at 15 W. Patrick St., formerly the Cultural Arts Center that housed the Frederick Arts Council and other arts organizations (and was briefly thought to become an arts hub called 15 Square), and New Spire Spaces is at 115 E. Church St., formerly the Board of Education building that was utilized in recent years as a venue for two Artomatic@Frederick events. New Spire Stages is slated to open in 2018, but Spaces opens to the public this month.
Rewind one year ago, with the launching of the second Artomatic@Frederick, the zeitgeist of repurposing abandoned structures in full effect. The buildings on East Church Street proved the perfect setting for the multi-week mega art exhibit, and at the event kickoff, a keynote address by building owner Marvin Ausherman conceptually laid out a plan to rehabilitate the place into a 21st-century arts education and creative performing arts hub. The philanthropic developer graciously allowed Artomatic access to his newly acquired buildings at 115 and 117 E. Church St. In turn, Artomatic transformed shuttered offices into makeshift art installations and the former top-floor gymnasium into an atmospheric concert venue — a possible template for things to come.
Behind the polite applause, some in the diverse arts crowd were apprehensive about his commitment to make good on his visionary promises. A 2014 plan by the Ausherman Foundation to convert the ex-Frederick Cultural Arts Center, across from the Weinberg Center, into a project called 15 Square — with a similarly worded arts education/performing arts mission — faded into darkness despite a substantial publicity rollout and sizable community participation to discuss programming. The quiet at 15 Square amplified frustration by local musicians and music goers alike on the lack of mid-size, all-ages venues options in the city, limiting the places to properly perform in and just as crucially, the ability to book nationally known acts.
Ashli Cheshire, who fronts the Frederick indie rock band Cheshi, said, “There is not a music venue in Frederick that isn’t a bar first. Without a decent mid-size venue, it’s impossible to book bigger shows in Frederick, which would be [beneficial for] musicians trying to network outside this region.”
Alexa Johnson, a recent Hood alumna, started a house show series at the all-ages DIY venue known as The Squat, addressing the fact that the city’s youth were shut out of local music shows that had age restrictions, primarily bars that host live music. “That’s a … problem college kids have,” Johnson said. “Frederick is a great city, it’s wonderful, but if you’re not old enough to go to bars, there’s no night life.”
Film aficionados also rued a missed opportunity, noting the art-house void in the city as indie first-run movies of substance and quality continued to bypass Maryland’s second-largest city.
And now back to present day: In the same room Ausherman addressed the Artomatic crowd, Lucas is showing some of the structural work, the knocked-down walls and expanded areas to the christened New Spire Spaces, already enrolling students for classes starting this month. Lucas, sporting an impressive CV as an award-winning director for film and stage in New York City, was hired by Ausherman to run the artistic direction for New Spire Arts, after moving to the area a couple years ago. When I met her in May, she was buzzing with energy and optimism as vision is now finally turning into reality, much of which she will share in a highly anticipated open house of the first floor of New Spire Spaces, beginning at 4 p.m. June 27 (the remaining three floors will be closed).
As she guides me past various rooms on the first floor, pointing out a green screen to be installed here for creating broadcast quality shows on YouTube, and a recording studio to be installed there for podcasting classes, I can envision the creative explosion that seems finally just within reach for Frederick. We peek into a smaller intimate room across the hall that could serve as a venue for film screenings. In another, couches were awaiting installation for a lounge area so parents can hang out with wi-fi while the little ones are in classes and teens finish homework before classes begin. The lounge option is part of the intentional design in place to remove the barriers to participating, including designing a schedule that allows both kids of various ages and parents to take classes at the same time.
We stop at what she calls The Great Room, a space that can hold up to 150 people and is designed for dance instruction and music performances.
The scale of programming is incredibly ambitious.
“It’s all about the entire range of what needs to be in performing arts,” said Lucas, “from the media end to the traditional end to experimental new stuff.”
Experimental new stuff? Try virtual reality for starters, and a future workshop to create VR applications.
“HighRock Studios in Hagerstown invited us to a demo … creating virtual reality environments for commercial purposes,” Lucas explained. “A lot of real estate companies are using it. I got to walk through a yacht that was being sold for millions of dollars!”
What Frederick really needs is more storytelling, Lucas said, and that crosses through all the art forms and includes the use of technological advances in this digital age.
“I think there’s a real opening right now, especially in the media world, to be first on the front lines of combining story and the best traditions with technology. … The constant conversation between disciplines is what spurs innovation and creativity.”
One constant theme that she kept hearing when talking with stakeholders in the arts community is that “whenever Frederick gets a great program, whenever the lead moves away or gets sick, it just dies,” she recounted. “I want to do a series on leadership development, where we’re teaching producing, directing, choreography, screenwriting — basically trying to remove the mental barriers people have going from ‘I have an idea and want to do it’ to ‘I’m going to do it.’” To help in that, she’s bringing on high-caliber instructors like Jessica Reddish, last year’s winner of the Helen Hayes award in choreography. She’ll teach how to create Broadway choreography, kids and college students alike “who have been dancing all their lives and want to take it to a next level of understanding why the steps are put together the way they are … people can come in, think bigger, and maybe they will come up with their own dance piece that will be in [New Spire] Stages in a year,” said Lucas.
And there’s more: a quick glance at the menu of upcoming classes includes special effects makeup, stage combat, hip-hop and street dance, directing a music scene, filmmaking and more, including a rhythm & dance class based on Stomp and taught by Kwame Opare, a state department sponsored choreographer who actually toured with Broadway’s Stomp.
“We’re very specific about not choosing things that are already here,” Lucas said.
She pointed out, for one example, great traditional dance studios were already operating in Frederick and she was careful that New Spire Arts would not overlap with their programming. Instead, she sought to tackle many “of these things that are essential to making art,” she said. “That’s where I think we’re going to fill in some gaps.”
That includes inviting different cultural arts and music groups to take advantage of the space to book a variety of events. Already, Lucas has been in touch with Johnson, who started The Squat. With the house lease ending in August, Johnson is exploring recreating a similar house show vibe by curating underground indie rock shows in the rehabbed Church Street facility. “I want to help foster a music scene here,” Johnson said. “I think that’s something that could help the whole city and help everybody benefit from that.”
There’s another aspect to opening innovative programming within New Spire Spaces, and it has to do with looking into the crystal ball of Frederick’s future. Referring to a long-term study about the environment businesses face in thinking about locating in Frederick, an immediate concern about the perceived lack of exciting cultural programming comes to the fore. “The Work Force Development Component, from what I understand, [said] large businesses are having trouble convincing young professionals to move here,” explained Lucas, “because it doesn’t feel like there’s enough. We hope we can fill that gap.”
Speaking of gaps to fill: a functioning art-house cinema in Frederick. Pop-up varieties, including first run indie movie screenings at Area 31 proved successful this past year, but with infrequent screenings, accessibility is an issue.
Lucas delved right into that.
“I would love nothing more than to be that first-run art-house here in Frederick. I think that’s easily part of the vision. It’s going to count on us being able to identify the audience and make sure they come.” She pointed out the nimble advantage New Spire Spaces has with the various room sizes to accommodate audiences who are probably not looking for a blockbuster effects-driven filler. “If it’s 50 people, then it can be in that media classroom. And there’s no barrier whatsoever to schedule every night of the week.” If films attract a bigger audience, next year when New Spire Stages completes their renovation process, a bigger and even more expansive multipurpose space will be available for first-run arthouse releases, Lucas said. That versatility directly speaks to the challenge the Weinberg Center has had in their ability to show films; the venue has more than 1,000 seats to fill.
Sustainable growth is now the underlining challenge for New Spire Spaces going forward. If community interest to go to classes and attend events — to essentially, in Lucas’ words, “activate the building” — the Ausherman Foundation, who provided financial backing for the project, would then be open to revamping other floors for the arts, requiring significant ongoing fundraising efforts (with workers still busy bringing the 100-year-old building to code, you get a sense of the massive undertaking it’s been to rehabilitate the old lady).
Ryan Nicholson, a Frederick musician with the band Heavy Lights, said the new space is a viable option. “It seems that a lot of minds that are contributing to it are looking at this from both as a necessity of a venue here in Frederick and understanding that there needs to be cost effectiveness. But without the burden of profit on it, it certainly makes it very encouraging.”
The invitation is open for the community to participate, and the open house will kick off the initiative.
“The Ausherman Family Foundation has been an incredible catalyst in getting this started,” Lucas said. “But if the community doesn’t embrace it, it will not continue.”
The ball will be in Frederick’s hands soon.