Twenty Years of Growing the Talbot County Arts Community

This column visits the faces of those who have benefited from the generous and tireless work of the nonprofits on the Mid Shore. Perhaps unknown to many of us, these individuals have had their lives transformed by the missions of these organizations and are giving back in unique ways to better our world. Amelia Blades Steward has been a freelance writer in our community for over 15 years and offers a glimpse into the lives of residents on the Mid Shore whom she has met along the way.

At the recent Maryland Arts Day in Annapolis, a contingent of Talbot County Arts Council (TCAC) board members experienced the excitement of hearing that Maryland has moved from fourth to third place among the 50 states in per-capita state funding for the arts. And, once again, in the fiscal year that ends on June 30, Talbot County was first among the state’s 24 political jurisdictions at $14.04 per resident in state arts funding.

A bowl is given to TCAC Board members who have completed a full term (or six years) of service. The pottery bowl is created by Kemper Chapman, former owner of Trade Whims in Easton.
The total of $525,944 Talbot County received this year from the Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC) includes $129,244 for TCAC, as well as $396,700 in Grants for Organizations distributed among the Academy Art Museum, Avalon Foundation, Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, Chesapeake Film Festival, Chesapeake Music, Easton Choral Arts Society, Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, Tidewater Singers, and Waterfowl Festival.

Over the past 20 years, under the leadership of Gerry Early, executive director of the Talbot County Arts Council, non-profit and government-related arts organizations have received increased support and guidance that has translated into a rich and vibrant arts culture in the county. Easton was even recognized in April as a finalist for USA Today’s “Best Small Town Cultural Scene.”

As Gerry retires from his position this summer, these accolades certainly don’t go unnoticed. It is worth a look back on how support of the arts has grown since his arrival in 1999 – something he won’t take credit for – but which has certainly benefited from his strong organizational leadership and passion for the youth and underserved in Talbot County.

In 1999, the MSAC allocated $49,656 to TCAC, which translated to $34,318 being given to local organizations as Community Arts Development Grants and $2,105 being given to public and private elementary and secondary schools in Arts-in-Education Grants. In 2019, the MSAC’s grant of $129,244 to TCAC translated to $82,885 being given to organizations as Community Arts Development Grants.

During those years, there was also a tremendous increase in TCAC’s Arts-in-Education Grants – from $6,840 in FY 2009 to $28,896 in FY 2019 – which now support every public and private elementary and secondary school in Talbot County. This number also reflects contributions from the Dock Street Foundation, the Ruth and Robert St. John Foundation, the Artistic Insights Fund at the Mid-Shore Community Foundation, and Carpe Diem Arts, due in large part to the efforts of local arts supporter Busy Graham.

According to Gerry Early, “Busy Graham’s initiative in organizing local foundation support has benefited local schools Arts-in-Education Grants in a significant way, making Talbot County’s Arts-in-Education Grant allocation probably the highest per-student in the state.”

In terms of the number of arts organizations with boots on the ground in Talbot County, Gerry adds, “In 2000, we were supporting fewer than 20 arts organizations in Talbot County. Today, we are funding 36 organizations that provide much of the arts programming in our county. In FY 1999 there were 19 grant-receiving organizations that in total got $43,023 in Community Arts Development grants. In FY 2019, there were 36 applicants for these grants totaling $82,885.”

This makes Talbot County unique among the arts councils in Maryland. In most of the state’s rural areas, the arts councils spend much of the resources allocated by the MSAC on holding arts events themselves. In Talbot County, the TCAC instead disburses the funds to the large number of established and diverse arts organizations who are providing these events. As a result, the number and quality of arts offerings in a given month is staggering.

According to Jane Bollman, past president of the TCAC, “Gerry has gone out of his way to help new organizations get on their feet. He established a “Mini-Grant” program just so this could happen.”

Among the organizations that started with Mini-Grants and grew to receive the Community Arts Development Grants over the years are Allegro Academy, Chesapeake Film Festival, Continuum Dance Company, Bay Country Chorus, Frederick Douglass Honor Society, Mid Shore Community Band, Christ Church Easton Sunday Concert Series, and Tilghman United Methodist Church Concert Series.

Another significant accomplishment of the TCAC since 1999 is the addition of Summer Arts Scholarships for high school students of exceptional artistic promise. In 2019, $4,500 is being given out in Summer Arts Scholarships to 10 high school students seeking advanced training in the arts. This year’s training programs ranged from music and voice lessons to musical theater and ballet camps, as well as classes in quilting and digital illustration.

Gerry credits former board member Dick Conte and longtime Board President Will Lockwood with starting the Mini-Grant and Summer Arts Scholarship programs after he became executive director in 2000. Robert Forloney, outgoing TCAC President, adds, “Over the two decades that Gerry Early has served as its Executive Director, the Talbot County Arts Council, has grown by leaps and bounds. Many of the programs that today exist are due directly to his hard work and leadership.”

Talbot County Government and the towns of Easton, Oxford, and St. Michaels have provided annual funding to the TCAC specifically for the Mini-Grant Program and the Summer Arts Scholarship Program. The Talbot County Government also has provided in-kind support by offering office space for the TCAC. In addition, since the late 1980s, the Talbot County Council has had a representative on the TCAC Board. In recent years, these individuals have been Andrew H. Anderson, Hillary Spence, Thomas G. Duncan, Dirck K. Bartlett, and presently Pete Lesher.

As the Talbot County Arts Council enters a search for a successor to Gerry Early as TCAC executive director this summer, it will have a hard time filling his shoes. Past TCAC Board President Stephanie Handy adds, “Gerry always had his act together, always involved the entire cast, never upstaged the arts organizations TCAC supported (while promoting the arts throughout Talbot County) and always kept us laughing. He’s most assuredly a very tough act to follow.”
The Talbot County Arts Council is a non-profit organization whose mission is to support the arts in Talbot County by granting funds to arts organizations, arts activities, and arts education in the schools. The Council also promotes the arts through advocacy, planning, coordination, and public relations. The TCAC offers four types of grant programs each year: Community Development Arts Grants, Arts-in-Education Grants, Mini-Grants, and Summer Arts Scholarships. For further information about the TCAC, visit or call 410-310-9812.

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