Best thing to come out of session may be arts school

April 18, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

When even your most visible failure (PenMar) can, in some sense, be counted as a win for the community, you have had a pretty good year. This was not the easiest of legislative sessions, and a lot of our local guys seemed to make the best of it.

Most publicly celebrated will be funding for operation of the University System of Maryland branch campus in downtown Hagerstown. That's fine, but the appropriation was only a little more than half of what was needed. And this funding was never really in doubt; there was no way the state was going to spend millions renovating the old Baldwin House hotel and then let it sit empty for lack of operating funds.

But the real success of this session only grabbed one scant headline and was quickly lost in the hurricane of debate over slot machines.

On the last week of March, Sen. Don Munson was able to cement a $400,000 grant to get the ball rolling for a charter school for the arts to be housed in the old Henry's Theater building downtown.


Not to diminish in the slightest the significance of the university campus, but the arts school has the chance to be every bit as important to the future of the county and the redevelopment of downtown, and in some ways, more so.

This project has several rather incredible elements about it. First, it has to be considered progress that a special school for kids with a gift for the arts is even being debated on a local level - in an area where even magnet schools for science and math are greeted with a degree of suspicion.

Arts historically have been easy targets. Bands and orchestras have been the first on the chopping block of budget constraints. They are viewed by some as optional equipment, especially when a number of children still have trouble reading and adding.

But the arts school, to date, seems to have enjoyed a relatively open community mind - which is a credit to the community. There has been no angst, the type of which is generally reserved for projects such as new stadiums or convention centers.

Part of the reason might come from the unlikeliest of sources: Vincent Groh. Groh is many things, but frivolous is not one of them. His reputation is more of a man whose by-the-book business acumen has put him at odds with the city because he has been able to buy buildings, wait a decade, and sell them at a profit without having to invest much in upkeep.

But it was Groh who donated the theater building, the school to be a tribute to his late wife Barbara, an arts patron and teacher here for many years. Suddenly Groh has a personal and emotional stake in the success of downtown, and that can be nothing but a good thing.

From a purely economic-development sense, the city ought to be excited about one other thing, too. Young foot traffic will pick up in the city. An element (a creative element, no less) of the up-and-coming generation will get comfortable with the idea of frequenting downtown. They will judge the merits of downtown for themselves, rather than listening to the jaundiced prejudices of us grown-ups who have gotten in the habit of putting the city down. They may see beauty and possibility where we have not.

Of course it's education that should be the driving factor here, and this school will be an invaluable tool at a crucial period. There may (or may not, but we can always hope) come a time when reality TV, some of the uglier forms of rap, art-for-the-sake-of-shock and cop-chase/crash-and-burn videotapes that pass as art and entertainment today will melt away and people will once again concern themselves more with beauty, skill and true artistic values.

Already, some educators are learning that inner city kids who respond to nothing else in the educational spectrum respond to visual or performing arts. And even the most penny-wise taxpayer can understand that a career in the arts is more publicly cost-effective than a career on the streets.

Finally and probably most importantly, arts are mind-expanding. They exercise and develop mental muscles useful in other scholastic pursuits and in life. Kids can grasp things they couldn't before; can see things they never noticed before; and can recognize possibility where none existed before. Art will give them better attitudes, better lives and better jobs, which is crucial because I am counting on the youth of today to be paying my Social Security.

When interests and philosophies as divergent as Munson, Groh and the Board of Education can agree on a project for the benefit of our kids and community, how can that project help but be special? Groh doesn't act on whim. Munson doesn't fight for bad ways to spend tax dollars. And the board, much of its agenda being forcibly whipped by federal and state mandates, can't afford to chase unproductive rainbows.

With those forces in place, the Barbara Ingram Groh School for the Arts just may be the beginning of something great.

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