Founding of DCA
It was spring of 1970 that 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 County Commissioners had purchased an 18th century house at 120 High St. 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 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 August 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 October 5 in the meeting room of the County Commissioners. Nominees for directors and terms of service were decided. 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.) Other officers were: Edward N. Evans, Jr., Vice President; Mrs. Lawrence Ewell, Jr., Corresponding Secretary;
Dr. Peter Van Huizen, Recording Secretary; and Mrs. Joseph (Georgie) Feldman, Treasurer. Original Board members included Arthur Kamens, Vernon Robbins, Thomas Fetherston, Mrs. Jesse Hester, Mrs. Ray W. Moore, Mrs. W. Grason (Beebe) Winterbottom III and Maurice Rimpo.
The Move to the Nathan Building
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 façade renovation including 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 façade, and contributes substantially to the evolution of the built environment in the downtown business district. Formerly known as the Nathan Furniture Store, this building was the last addition to a complex that originated in the late 1800’s; 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 first floor 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.
The second floor Performance Hall features theatre, concerts, film, dance, special events, and is available for private rentals to both individuals and businesses.
Each year over 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: Baywater Camera Club, Choptank Writers, Friday Morning Drawing, Fiber Fridays, Cambridge Ukelele Club, and Tuesday Open Paint.
Service to the Community
Additionally, through its service as the designated Arts Council for Dorchester, 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.
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.
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.
The most stellar achievement of all perhaps, is to be celebrating – in 2020 – 50 years of creating community through the arts. 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!