The monthly Heritage Partner Spotlight focuses on our Heart of Chesapeake Country Heritage Area (HCCHA) partners and how they have supported heritage tourism in Dorchester County with a project funded by either a Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA) grant or a HCCHA mini-grant.
This month’s spotlight shines on the Dorchester Center for the Arts, an organization that epitomizes one of the themes – Arts, Artists & Entertainment – that define the HCCHA. But more than that, DCA is dedicated to enriching Maryland’s Eastern Shore community with high quality arts programming and is a stalwart heritage partner committed to increasing access to the arts for all members of our community.
Committed to providing ‘art for all’
Over the past 50 years, the Dorchester Center for the Arts (DCA) has more than lived up to its slogan, “Art for All.” Committed to serving the Dorchester County community, DCA has sponsored free cultural events, supported local artists with grants, overseen the restoration of a historic downtown building and partnered with numerous community organizations, including the Heart of Chesapeake Country Heritage Area, to organize art and cultural endeavors.
“The most stellar achievement of all, perhaps, is to be celebrating – in 2020 – 50 years of creating community through the arts,” said DCA Executive Director Barb Seese. “We know the impact of the arts on health and well-being, and as an economic driver as well. Art changes lives. With the support of the community, we look forward to another 50 years!”
It was in spring 1970 when three local artists – Shirley Brannock, John Bannon and Robert Tolley – decided that it was important to establish a center for the arts to serve the people of Dorchester County. The trio were all graduates of the Maryland Institute of Art, educators and practicing painters. The three artists launched a search for a place where a broad-based arts program could be concentrated.
Several years earlier, the Dorchester County Commissioners had purchased an 18th century house at 120 High Street as part of a program to build a new county office building on Cambridge Creek. Impressed by the enthusiasm of the three artists, the county officials offered them the use of three rooms in the house, provided an appropriate corporation was established. Letters to the local business community brought promises of support.
On Aug. 17, 1970, the initial meeting to organize a community arts center was held at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cambridge. Cambridge attorney Vernon E. Robbins was asked to draw up papers of incorporation, which were signed by the three founding artists. Committees on bylaws and on objectives were named at that time. The first official meeting of the new Arts Center was held on Oct. 5 in the meeting room of the County Commissioners. The Center chose as its first president, William J. Cotton, a Dorchester educator, who played a part in establishing the Dorchester Arts Show (now called Showcase).
Purpose and Mission
The stated purpose of the new corporation was to receive and disperse funds in order to promote cultural activities through cooperative study, direction and action by public and private groups or individuals interested in the arts, crafts and other cultural needs of Dorchester County. Today, DCA continues to be governed by a volunteer Board of Directors and also relies on dedicated volunteers for assistance with programs and events.
According to its mission statement, “Dorchester Center for the Arts is dedicated to enriching Maryland’s Eastern Shore community through high quality, engaging programming in the visual, literary, musical and performing arts. As the designated County Arts Council for Dorchester County, the Center for the Arts is committed to increasing access to the arts for all members of our community by supporting extensive outreach and educational opportunities in the arts.”
In 2002, Dorchester County purchased the Nathan Building site for the designated use of the Center. The building is early 20th century with a 1930s Art Deco facade renovation, and was formerly known as the Nathan Furniture Store. This building was the last addition to a complex that originated in the late 1800s, a series of connected buildings on historic High Street in Downtown Cambridge that comprised the furniture store of the Meyer Nathan family. In December 2002, the building was leased to the Center for the Arts, and the Center is responsible for all improvements and maintenance.
The main gallery staircase was part of the original structure and was a favorite memory for many area residents. When the building was Nathan Furniture Store, high school choirs came in during the Christmas season, lined up on the steps and sang holiday music, while visitors sat on the furniture and enjoyed the performance. Today, that same staircase is featured during the December Second Saturday Artists’ Receptions, with community choir members filling the steps to share the sounds of the season.
MHAA grants and HCCHA mini-grants have been instrumental in helping Dorchester Center for the Arts achieve its goals. During its Phase 1 renovations of the Nathan Building, DCA received a $24,375 grant from MHAA to support the facade restoration, which included repair to the black vitrolite glass. This pigmented structural glass epitomized the ultramodern look of the Art Deco and Art Moderne movements, and reached its zenith in the 1920s and 1930s. Vitrolite is featured prominently on the DCA facade and contributes substantially to the evolution of the built environment in the downtown business district.
When it came time for Phase 2, the second floor Performance Hall renovation, DCA again received supportive funding from the MHAA with a $12,000 capital grant that facilitated completion and the premier of this new public space. The Performance Hall features theater, concerts, film, dance and special events, and is available for private rentals to both individuals and businesses.
A HCCHA mini-grant supported a heritage event celebrating the traditional art of decoy carving on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “Carved in History: The Art of the Decoy” included educational exhibits from the Dorchester County Historical Society and the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, and it featured hands-on demonstrations, discussions, exhibits, and youth activities.
A recent MHAA $10,000 Covid-19 emergency grant will assist with operating costs through the continued state of emergency due to the pandemic.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all programs and events since March 2020, there has been a shift to digital programming, and just recently a partial reopening of the galleries. The June exhibit focused on Cambridge native son John Barth, and July is featuring an exhibit organized by Lori Uncapher celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment, entitled “Women in the World.”
Thanks to a 2019 bond bill award, the Performance Hall is receiving new upgrades for sound, lighting and seating that will allow for exciting new program expansion when the time comes to safely resume larger gatherings.
Membership was a part of the original organizational structure and continues to this day. DCA has more than 700 members, but its programs are open to all. Proceeds from membership have a huge impact on the ability to offer scholarships and broaden program offerings. Learn more …
321 High Street
Cambridge, Maryland 21613
Each year, more than 13,000 individuals come through the doors to experience the arts. Exhibits in the DCA galleries change monthly and feature local, regional and national artists. The onsite artisan’s gift shop, “Studioworks,” features original art by local artists in a variety of mediums from jewelry to pottery, weaving to photography.
Classrooms are filled with year-round educational opportunities for both adults and youth, and summer features a children’s arts program for all ages. Several interest groups call DCA home, including Baywater Camera Club, Choptank Writers, Friday Morning Drawing, Fiber Fridays, Cambridge Ukelele Club, and Tuesday Open Paint.
Additional programs and events of special interest are offered in the galleries, and DCA sponsors and supports community arts activities throughout the county. Community arts grants are provided to non-profit organizations every year to support arts programming. In recent years recipients have included Alpha Genesis Community Development Corporation, Cambridge Ballet Company, Chesapeake Chamber Music, Christ Church Concert Series, Eastern Shore Hospital Center, Groove Theatre Co., Harriet Tubman Organization, Mid-Shore Community Band, Nanticoke Historic Preservation Alliance, National Outdoor Foundation, Pleasant Day Medical Adult Day Care and WHCP Community Radio. Schools also receive funding each year for arts in education programming that includes special performances and artist residencies.
For more than 40 years, DCA has presented the annual Showcase event. The art walk and street festival is held along historic High Street and showcases local artists and artisans, as well as community organizations and maritime heritage. This event is generously supported by the Nathan Foundation. For more than a decade, DCA has presented the Guest Artist Gala, an annual fundraising event that pairs professional artists with community leaders not generally perceived as artists. Together they create a work of art for auction that benefits programs at DCA.
DCA also undertakes projects in partnership with other community groups, and recently launched “Dorchester Cares: A Tapestry for Change.” This social justice community arts project is being spearheaded by DCA Executive Director Barb Seese and Omeaka Jackson, founder and CEO of Harvesting Hope Youth and Family Wellness.
In fall 2019, DCA hosted the Smithsonian Institutions’ traveling Water/Ways exhibit. The six-week event was held in collaboration with the Heart of Chesapeake Country Heritage Area, Downtown Cambridge and the Dorchester Chamber of Commerce.
DCA is very proud to have accomplished the renovation of the historic Nathan Building, re-purposed as a center for arts and culture, and now preserved for enjoyment by generations to come.
DCA has also assisted in the recognition, understanding, and preservation of the Harriet Tubman story, through the commission of the Harriet Tubman mural “Take My Hand,” painted on the side of the Harriet Tubman Museum in downtown Cambridge. DCA commissioned this mural in 2018 for the 50th Anniversary of the Maryland State Arts Council. Brought to fruition in partnership with Alpha Genesis CDC, this piece of public art has had a tremendous impact on heritage tourism for the county, the shore and the state.