At the first sign of a budget crunch, it seems the axes are trained on arts funding. Isn’t it “frivolous” to want beauty and enjoyment when we should buckle down instead? True enough, sometimes, but Bethesda embraced a different approach when it navigated trouble waters. Here, art has been elevated to a fundamental element. It pervades every corner of the social landscape, from the job market to business and educational opportunities that bolster quality of life. For citizens and visitors alike, Bethesda is a place to soak in the restorative powers of creativity, imagination and diversion.
“Arts organizations really blossomed here in the 2000s and have remained solvent, thanks to hard work and quality programs,” says Stephanie Coppula, director of marketing and communication for the Bethesda Urban Partnership.
Until the mid-1980s, Bethesda was relatively suburban, buffered from the intensity of cosmopolitan D.C. When the Metro Red Line was extended in 1984, Bethesda became 10 minutes from the nation’s capital by public transportation and the city experienced a boom. Passionate residents recognized this turning point as a chance to shape Bethesda’s future. They embraced the arts and entertainment industry as an economic engine to provide the right mix of progress and preservation.
“ARTS ORGANIZATIONS REALLY BLOSSOMED HERE IN THE 2000s AND HAVE REMAINED SOLVENT, THANKS TO HARD WORK AND QUALITY PROGRAMS.” —Stephanie Coppula, director of marketing and communication for the Bethesda Urban Partnership
In 2002, Bethesda was designated an Arts and Entertainment District by Maryland’s State Arts Council. Re-designated last year, Bethesda also won the 2012 Outstanding Achievement award from Maryland’s Department of Business and Economic Development, based on creating and sustaining highquality arts and cultural programming, development and promotions. The 300-acre area is one of three such districts in Montgomery County, joining Silver Spring and Wheaton, and one of 17 in Maryland. (Downtown Frederick has been a designated Arts and Entertainment District since 2003.) Along the way, Bethesda was also ranked first on both Forbes’ list of Most Educated Small Towns and CNN Money’s list of highest-earning towns. Not a bad combination.
The nonprofit Bethesda Urban Partnership, established in 1994, manages the district. The partnership also oversees Bethesda’s free trolley service, locally designed “poetry benches” and a full calendar of special events. June 1 is a children’s festival with arts, crafts and entertainment, while free outdoor movies are on the agenda for July 23 through 27 at 9 p.m. One of the year’s biggest events is the Taste of Bethesda on Oct. 6, featuring both popular and exotic fare from some of the town’s 200 restaurants.
IN 2002, BETHESDA WAS DESIGNATED AN ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT DISTRICT BY MARYLAND’S ARTS COUNCIL— ONE OF 17 IN THE STATE.
The partnership also operates Gallery B, a nonprofit space available to artists and arts organizations. The gallery’s annual event is the Bethesda Painting Award, a juried competition with hundreds of entries and thousands in prize money. Every second Friday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. (the 14th this month), Gallery B participates in a free monthly art walk. On the route, patrons can scope out some of the 20 galleries in town, including Waverly Street Gallery, Upstairs Art Studio, L’Eclat de Verre, Artworks, Consider It Done and Interiors of Washington, too. “Tunnel Vision” is public art in the Bethesda Metro pedestrian tunnel.
SUPPER WITH YOUR MUSIC
Blending old and new, the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club celebrated its grand opening in March then marked the anniversary of its 1938 building by featuring Grammy Award winner Branford Marsalis. The venture is unique in the area, combining upscale food and wide-ranging performances in an Art Deco setting. Gillian Moloney, social media and marketing manager for the club, says Bethesda is a good match for the business. “People here really appreciate the whole spectrum of arts and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. …The biggest challenge was renovation.” Previously a cinema, draft house and theater, the site now features a two-story kitchen, a 40-foot bar/lounge, room for 300 diners and 200 performance seats, in an “acoustically superb setting.”
Of course, there is no shortage of dining options in Bethesda, which boasts more than 200 offerings and can inspire a tasting escapade through food, culture and style. Choose among kebobs, maki, beignets, rossejat or hand-made pasta. But food is just the start.
ONE OF THE YEAR’S BIGGEST EVENTS IS THE TASTE OF BETHESDA THAT FEATURES BOTH POPULAR AND EXOTIC FARE FROM SOME OF THE TOWN’S 200 RESTAURANTS.
The well-established Imagination Stage has filled a niche for families since 1979. With 10 years in its current location, the nonprofit Imagination Stage is a professional theater, presenting shows for the under-12 crowd and an education center for ages 1 to 18. Along with school residency programs, it offers early-childhood activities and summer camps, ranging from drama and dance to filmmaking in its digital media studio. Kate Taylor Davis, director of external relations for Imagination Station, says, “We want to be a community resource. … Magical moments happen here every day.”
Check out Imagination Station’s interpretation of Peter Pan, June 26 through Aug. 11. Tickets range from $12 to $25. Seasonal subscriptions are also available for 2013-2014, including unlimited exchanges and discounts at local restaurants.
Strathmore, the multidisciplinary arts center, gets high marks from patrons. The 11-acre campus includes the Mansion at Strathmore, a sculpture garden, an outdoor concert pavilion and the Music Center at Strathmore with a 2,000- seat concert hall. In addition to concerts and art exhibits, visitors can enjoy festivals, classes and camps. There are tours of the historic mansion and afternoon teas. The Healing Tones: Music Therapy and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Veterans series continues on June 6. The Backyard Theater for Kids series kicks off July 11.
The acclaimed Round House Theatre is nearby, as well. Led by new producing artistic director Ryan Rilette, this professional theatre presents nearly 200 performances each season at its 400-seat Bethesda theater and its 150-seat sister theater in Silver Spring. The romantic comedy Becky Shaw is playing now through June 23.
Writers and filmmakers get due consideration, too. Bethesda’s Walsh Street is The Writer’s Center’s main location. The independent organization hosts events and workshops here and around Maryland, D.C. and Virginia that are designed to cultivate the creation and dissemination of literary work. CINE, a resource for emerging and established filmmakers for more than 50 years, provides screening, learning and networking opportunities. CINE’s Golden Eagle Award past recipients include Steven Spielberg, Ken Burns, Mel Brooks, Mike Nichols and Ron Howard. Landmark’s newly renovated Bethesda Row Cinema features independent and foreign language films. It reopened in May with digital projection and sound.
As Bethesda continues to flourish, buoyed by culture and creative place-making, it’s clear that good times and good business go together like dinner and a show.