Monday, August 04, 2008

Does Frederick, Maryland Hate the Arts?

Just received a disturbing email from my longtime and very dear friend Becky Kemper, artistic director of the Maryland Shakespeare Festival, which is located in the town of Frederick. You may or may not know that Frederick is Maryland's second largest city and has a long, glorious history. Here's a little bit from a good website:

Events leading to the Civil War, and the war itself, touched Frederick deeply. It was here that the Maryland Legislature met when it was decided the state would not secede from the Union. The city was a natural crossroads for troop movements. Frederick residents were pressed many times to provide supplies for troops, and many families in the city as well as the state were divided in their loyalties. The Battle of the Monocacy south of town saved Washington from being taken by the Confederate Army.
And, of course, Frederick was the home to the famous Barbara Frietchie:

In stories it is said that at 95 years of age she waved the Union flag out of her window despite opposition from Stonewall Jackson's troops, who were passing through Frederick in the Maryland Campaign.
But in more recent times, it has been the home of the aforementioned Maryland Shakespeare Festival and doing beautifully, bringing the Bard to literally tens of thousands of schoolchildren across the entire state. Unfortunately, as per Becky's letter, not everyone in Frederick has come out of the 19th century -- much less the 20th or the 21st. Who are these backward, right-wing arts-hating heathens in my United States:

An Open Letter to Our Community Regarding Playhouse Zoning Issues

Dear Friends of Maryland Shakespeare Festival,

As many of you are aware, we are fighting to keep our performance space on West 2nd Street in the beautiful Elizabethan grand hall of Centennial Memorial United Methodist Church. Since the original communications with City Code Enforcement this spring, Centennial United Methodist Church intervened with a letter to the city explaining how the relationship with Maryland Shakespeare Festival directly fulfills the mission of Centennial Memorial Church. Pastor George Earle eloquently explained a long tradition of arts as worship and how we help them to utilize a space originally designed for theatrical performance, provide thought provoking quality artistic programming for the poor - a particular church constituency, and create a community hub that helps the church’s outreach to the larger community.

The city responded on July 9 (received July 16) with a letter that despite Pastor Earle’s specific testimony in the contrary stated no clear relationship “beyond occupancy of the same building has yet to be established,” declared “theater production does alter the character of the church by drawing in a population for purposes beyond those which serve to further the religious mission of a church,” and finally directing us to “stop using the space as a theater.”

City Planners have, however, encouraged us to apply for a Temporary Zoning Approval that, after a public hearing in front of the Zoning Board of Appeals in the end of September, might give us permission to use the space for six months. This approval might also be renewed for two additional six-month periods, ultimately allowing MSF to either fight for permanent rezoning or find another home.

The city also encouraged us to file an Application of Appeal, which would nullify any code violations until the hearing and allow the summer campers and the first Unrehearsed Shakespeare weekend to perform at the church as usual before the hearing in September.

These seemed like viable solutions until we actually found the applications on the city website. The Application of Appeals must be accompanied with a $1,000 fee, which according to the Office of Planning cannot be waived. Likewise, the Temporary Zoning Permit application requires a $650 fee. (We have already lost close to $3,000 by moving performance venues twice this season, absorbing additional rental and marketing fees and, in the case of recent SSI performances, losing all revenue because the new city-owned space prohibited admission charges). It also appears that MSF may not be eligible to submit either application, since MSF is not the legal owner of the property. The fact that the city’s decision did not include the church and was only sent to MSF (on tour) makes the bureaucracy only more complex. Finally, preparing these applications seems to require expensive legal representation that we do not currently have.

Several troubling issues have also emerged that make this an issue much larger than that of one arts organization and its conflict between serving its community and a lone neighbor’s complaint.

-- Can a City Government decide how a Church defines or fulfills its mission? If the City decides what is or is not furthering a religious mission or what is or is not the typical time for church activity in regards to Centennial Memorial and Maryland Shakespeare Festival, what does that mean for the myriad arts groups partnering with other churches throughout the city or for the twelve step programs or the sports groups or Scouting troups or book clubs?

-- The Arts & Entertainment District, in which 8 West Second Street is located has only two streets and approximately 10 blocks zoned for performance. Those blocks also happen to be the prime real estate of the City and in little need of the revitalization for which the Arts & Entertainment District is designed. How is an Arts & Entertainment district not zoned for entertainment?

-- Why does a decision by two City staff members require $1,000 fee to be reviewed or receive public comment? This is a prohibitive fee for all but corporate developers and seems a preventative measure to keep questions to a minimum.

Currently, we are pursuing affordable or pro bono legal representation and the funds to apply for the Temporary Zoning Permit due August 9th. Our current end-of-year reserves prevent us from even considering a submission of the Application of Appeal, and so we are looking for affordable alternatives for summer camp performances and the first event of the fall. The Church is approaching the Bishopry for possible help as well.

Maryland Shakespeare Festival is committed to serving not only the thirteen counties across the state to which we tour, but also the town we consider our home – Frederick. Without a performance venue and with the continued political battles over its support of the Arts in general, however, Frederick is becoming more difficult to consider home, and other solutions may have to be considered.

Thank you for your continued support and belief in the work of Maryland Shakespeare Festival. We hope to include all of you in the process as it proceeds. There will be an opportunity for public comment at the Zoning Board of Appeals hearing which we will publicize. However, if you have suggestions, resources, a desire to become more involved, or a need to discuss this further, please do not hesitate to contact me directly.

Becky Kemper
Producing Artistic Director

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Joseph Millett said...

This is terrifying. And since when does the first ammendment of our Constitution allow a city government to tell a church what they can or can't do within the confines of their own four walls?

Ms. Kemper shoud be encouraged from all quarters to fight the power!

susan centineo said...

In response to the Clyde Fitch blog, Does Frederick MD Hate the Arts?, I would like to make a comment regarding his second question: "Who are these backward, right-wing arts-hating heathens..."

It is very offensive and presumptuous to assume that the bureaucrats in Frederick ascribe to "right-wing" politics, or that they are attempting to squelch the Arts if they are.

I happen to have conservative political beliefs and I am a registered Republican. However, I served on the Maryland Ensemble Theater's Board of Directors. I own a thriving Photography business, and just opened a new downtown Studio. I am a writer, poet, artist, and a HUGE supporter of the Arts in Frederick. Likewise, I have many conservative friends and business acquaintances who are, too, and so to make a blanket (and highly incorrect!) statement that the red tape Nazis (a better analogy) who would put such restrictions and fees on the Shakespeare program are "backward, right-wing arts-hating heathens" is just wrong.

I think you'll find that the people who occupy those positions include liberal, left-wingers as well.
Love of the Arts transcends political affiliation, as I myself demonstrate. I know for a fact that some of the METS biggest benefactors are Republican. Same with the Weinberg Center.

On a different note, I can't wait to see one of the Bard's plays and I hope things got worked out and they are still able to do so - and in a Church to boot! (Churches are usually to the RIGHT of things. :) Best wishes! ~~~Susan Centineo

Leonard Jacobs said...

Susan, you're responding to this post six months late! And the right is wrong. Always wrong.