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Museum courtyard enclosure planned

December 20, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- A $2.5 million courtyard enclosure project planned for the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts will create a 3,000-square-foot, glass-roofed space for exhibits, events and tour group gatherings, museum officials revealed last week.

The project will enclose the interior courtyard of the museum, which is in Hagerstown's City Park.

Museum Director Rebecca Massie Lane and museum board Chairman Thomas C. Newcomer shared their plans for the project with the Washington County Commissioners Tuesday as they asked the county for a no-interest loan to help get the project started.

The commissioners voted 3-2 to loan the museum a total of $300,000 -- half this fiscal year and half next fiscal year -- from the county's hotel-motel tax fund, to be paid back over five years.

The hotel-motel tax fund comes from taxes collected on lodging and is designated for developing tourism attractions, enhancing economic development, and supporting cultural and recreational projects in the county. Prior to the loan, the county had about $230,000 left in the fund for this fiscal year, and it is anticipated that about $450,000 will be available in the next fiscal year, County Administrator Gregory B. Murray said.

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About a third of visitors to the museum come from outside the county, Lane said.

Commissioners William J. Wivell and Kristin B. Aleshire voted against the loan, saying they would have been comfortable with smaller contributions. Wivell, who advocated for a $100,000 contribution this fiscal year, said he didn't think the commissioners should commit funds for fiscal year 2011, when a different board will be in office for part of the year.

Newcomer said the loan will allow the museum to move ahead with the project while the economic climate is likely to result in the lowest bids from contractors.

The museum has raised $1.6 million to date for the project, including $1.26 million in private donations and $400,000 in state bond bill money, Newcomer said.

The project architects, Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects of Baltimore, have completed the design for the project and it is ready to go out to bid in January, he said. The museum plans to seek bids only from local contractors to ensure the project helps stimulate the local economy, he said.

Project renderings show a space with brick floors and walls, and a roof made of diamond-shaped panes of glass. The panes will have thermal and UV properties to help keep heat in during the winter and keep heat out in the summer, Lane said.

The enclosed space will become the largest gallery space in the museum and will allow for the display of new exhibits currently held in storage, museum officials said.

"The museum has a vault full of sculptures that some people have never seen, and the idea of this whole courtyard was to have a place to put those sculptures out," said museum board member Denis Rocco.

Lane said the courtyard would also allow a more prominent display of some of the pieces tucked away in corners in the current museum space.

"Most notably, I'd point out the Abraham Lincoln head, which was done by the same artist who did Mount Rushmore," she said. "This is an incredible object to have in Hagerstown and Washington County, and very few people even notice it because it's in a cubbyhole. There isn't a proper place to exhibit it."

The courtyard will also serve as a hub to connect all the galleries in the museum, and will be an ideal space for tour groups to gather for orientation, Newcomer said. It could also include a cafe that would serve coffee and snacks, he said.

The space could be used by the museum to host performances and educational programs, and it also could be rented out for weddings, receptions and other events, he said.

"This space right now is being used, probably four, five months of the year, and now it becomes 12 months of the year," Rocco said. "You get full use so that if somebody wants to have 200-and-some people for a sit-down dinner, you have a facility, which is beautiful, that can handle that in the middle of the winter."

The museum plans to continue raising funds to pay off the loan from the county, and funds from renting out the space can also be contributed to the repayment, Newcomer said.

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