OCEAN CITY — With much of the focus on rebranding Ocean City in recent weeks aimed at tapping the youth sports phenomenon, a plea was made this week to make sure arts and culture are not left behind.
Art League of Ocean City Executive Director Rina Thaler this week presented her annual update to the Mayor and Council on the goings-on at the organization’s Center for the Arts facility on 94th Street and all around the resort and throughout the region over the last year. The Art League was formed in 1963 by a handful of local artists looking for venues to display their work.
In the five-plus decades since, the Art League of Ocean City has grown to become a major driving force for art and culture in the resort. From modest beginnings when a small portion of City Hall was granted for its use, the art league later moved to an abandoned pool house along the bay at 94th Street where it remained for decades.
As the organization grew and the old facility at 94th Street outlived its useful purpose, plans were set in motion in 2011 to demolish the old pool house and create a new and shining permanent home for the art league on the site. The Ocean City Center for the Arts opened in 2013 and has become a thriving hub for arts and culture in the resort every year since.
“Each year, we do more and more,” she said. “We’re there every day, day and night,” she said. “It’s something that’s always available all year-long.”
Thaler told the Mayor and Council on Monday the Center for the Arts has attracted over 104,000 thousand visitors since it opened including nearly 20,000 in 2018 alone. The art league now boasts over 1,100 members along with 65 local businesses.
“We had 400 members when we moved into that building,” she said. “You can see just how much growth is going on.”
As a result of the organization’s efforts, arts and culture are in full bloom in Ocean City. From the larger events such as the weekend-long Art X event in August to the Artrageous interactive art and music festival in October to the Ocean City Film Festival going on this weekend, the organization is producing numerous opportunities to expand arts and culture in the resort area and beyond, all while appealing to existing residents and visitors while attracting a different demographic.
Over the last few months, there has been much discussion about an aggressive attempt to tap into the growing youth sports phenomenon as a means to expand tourism and somewhat rebrand the town’s image. On Monday, Thaler urged the Mayor and Council to make sure arts and culture aren’t left behind.
“When you talk about sports marketing, the arts are something that appeals to all ages,” she said. “I hope when you consider how to reach those markets, you also remember the importance of cultural tourism and the arts.”
Much of the art league’s activities are focused in and around the Center for the Arts at 94th Street with monthly exhibits by local artists and lectures and art instruction in many mediums. Thaler said there were 365 different classes offered at the facility in 2019 with nearly 2,800 registrants. In addition, the Center for the Arts offers opportunities to present film and music at the facility with $5 Film Nights each month and Originals Night during which local musicians are invited to present original music.
The art league’s activities go far beyond the walls of the facility on 94th Street, however. For example, its hosts events at the Performing Arts Center in the convention center along with Brown Box Theater productions and plein-air events all over town.
The art league is also involved with an extensive public art program including mural screens at municipal tennis courts and a partnership with the Ocean City Development Corporation (OCDC) on an ambitious public utility box painting program.
The organization also has serious charitable and societal overtones with scholarships for local school kids, Art and Soul monthly workshops for those dealing with addiction and other illnesses and the popular Empty Bowl project for the benefit of the Diakonia shelter.
In addition, the art league works with the Recreation and Parks Department to produce an Art Adventure Camp for youth, a J-1 international student photography exhibit and the annual Sand Castle Tour of area homes. Thaler said just about every inch of the relatively new space at 94th Street is being utilized and there might come a time when the facility needs to be expanded again.
“We’ve done so much out of that 5,000-square-foot building,” she said. “Most art leagues like ours are double that size. We are having some space issues and we might be coming back with a plan for expansion in the future.”
Councilman John Gehrig, who has been a strong advocate for youth sports marketing, praised Thaler and her members for their contributions.
“The passion and love you have for this is evident,” he said. “Thank you for all you’re doing with the arts.”
Mayor Rick Meehan also praised the art league for its efforts to raise the arts and culture bar in Ocean City.
“What you’ve done over the past year is phenomenal,” he said. “You’ve really taken this cultural journey to a new level. What you’ve done has really exceeded everything that was anticipated when it was built. I encourage people to visit the art league because it will definitely exceed their expectations.”
In closing, Thaler encouraged the elected officials to remember the presentation when they continue tourism marketing and strategic planning.
“It’s not just the success of the art league, but the success of the entire town of Ocean City,” she said. “Please consider the arts and culture as part of your strategic plan going forward.”