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'Elevator Chat' with MSAC Chair, Carol Trawick

'Elevator Chat' with MSAC Chair, Carol Trawick


An active leader in the Montgomery County arts and business communities for more than 30 years, Carole Trawick joined the Maryland State Arts Council in 2011. After serving as vice chair, Trawick became chair of the Council in July. We caught up with Carole and learned about her work with arts organizations through the Jim and Carol Trawick Foundation, her early efforts to bring Arts & Entertainment (A&E) Districts to Maryland, and more.

August 07, 2014Arts Across Maryland

MSAC: You’ve been an entrepreneur, teacher, philanthropist, community leader, arts supporter…and the list goes on. But in your own words, how would you describe yourself?

CT: That’s an interesting question. My first instinct would be to say I’m really a free spirit.  I’m not what I appear to be. I was born Carol Anne Mary Acinapura. I grew up in the inner city in a three-room walk up flat with my younger brother and mother and father, but I was surrounded by love and always thought I was rich—until I got to high school and I realized that wasn’t the case. But it didn’t matter. I was always allowed to do what I wanted to pursue. My parents never said “you have to do this, you have to do that,” so I really see myself as having a very free spirit, independent. What’s the next opportunity? What can I learn? That’s the excitement of life!

MSAC: And that’s led to a lot of different work, a lot of different things…

CT: A lot of different things! One thing I like to talk about is a graduation speech I gave. And I took this great big canoe paddle up to the podium, “Oh, this?” I asked, “How else am I going to get on the river of life?” You’ve got to paddle your own canoe, and I went on with the whole analogy. Life is exciting. Every opportunity one has to learn—whether it’s formal, or from other people or the opportunity to be on a job and learn a whole new skill set. And that’s what led me to the arts! The arts encourage experimentation. 

MSAC: Is there one application for the arts that excites you in particular? In your career, how have the arts been transformative to some of the other issues that are so important to communities? 

Well, I was one of the people who helped start Arts & Entertainment Districts in Maryland, because we wanted one in Bethesda. When I had been chair of the Chamber of Commerce, we really pushed privatization of the Bethesda Urban Partnership. Business Improvement Districts (BID) were all over the country. Once the Bethesda Urban District was privatized, there was one issue that needed to be expanded: marketing the district.

We were doing neat things in the Bethesda, but we needed another dimension, we needed to surround people with art.  I went to the Affordable Art Fair in New York City and I was seeing all this local Maryland talent from our region—especially Baltimore and of course D.C. and I wanted to tie these together.  How do we bring visibility to Bethesda, surround people with art and raise the visibility of artist? Let’s have an Arts & Entertainment District!

Tunnel Vision, a program of The Bethesda Urban Partnership, brightens the Bethesda A&E District's Metro Station with locally-made art.

MSAC: You’ve worked with many arts and other types of organizations in Bethesda and beyond, but specifically, what do you think are some of the greatest challenges facing arts organizations today?

CT: Well, arts organizations—most of them—have a very clear mission whether they’re very large or very small.  They have a clear mission. They have the passion and they have the skill set in whatever it is—fine arts, dance, or music. But many can’t operate as businesses because they don’t have the capacity. 

MSAC: So is that where funding for general operating support is a priority?

CT: Operating support is a priority. They know what they need to do, but don’t have the capacity, the actual staff.  That’s why for the foundation, I started a co-op program for capacity in bookkeeping. I give a grant to four organizations that covers the salary of one shared consultant bookkeeper. So no one has an employee, the bookkeeper gets a good salary. So instead of coming in and giving a seminar, what they’re given is the worker bee.

The other capacity that’s in need is technology. Like bookkeeping, that’s pretty concrete. Where it gets a little ambiguous is the other kinds of capacity, which is administrative support for increasing volunteers and getting use out of volunteers—marketing is a huge capacity. So, this is the type of administrative support that becomes more varied, diverse and difficult to provide. But, if you can take some of the concrete pieces, the bookkeeping, the technology—what happens? They have some resources to apply to the marketing or the volunteer program or whatever it may be.

MSAC: As the head of a foundation, you’re able to take a dynamic approach to helping arts organizations. How might the MSAC, now that you’re chair, in its own capacity, be able to address some of these needs?

CT: Well, the Council just last year completed a vast, comprehensive strategic plan. It differs from the previous five-year plan, which was more high-level, but it provided us some firm guidelines. It got us to a place where now, we can look at the future and say, “we did well with those high level goals—how do we now go to the next level?” So, the 2014-2019 Strategic Plan is the next level. It’s more implementation.

Since so much of the plan was based on input from the field—the people we’re servicing—I think we’ve got to manage expectations. I think what we want to do is highlight those initiatives that are already bubbling up at a fast pace. For example, we want to work more closely with the County Arts Councils because the stronger the arts are in their communities, the stronger the State Arts Council can be.

MSAC: Yes, so thinking about community. How might you see the role of the council member changing under your leadership, in terms of his or her position in the community?

Carole Trawick at the Maryland Traditions Folklife Festival at The Creative Alliance, June 14, 2014

CT: I think the role of the councilor has always been there, but we just need to communicate it in a simpler way. I think the role of a councilor is three things: fiduciary, policy and ambassador. I want sharing to become the mantra of our Councilors in their role as ambassadors. You’ve got to touch, you’ve got to feel, hear and see with your heart, because you can’t talk about the art and the people unless you do. So you’ve got to be out there. Being a good ambassador is raising the visibility of the arts groups in one’s community, as well as the Arts Council’s relationship with those groups.

MSAC: You’re known for founding the Trawick Art Prize. Thirteen years it’s been happening in Bethesda.  Why contemporary arts, what led you to focus on this area?

CT: We had established the A&E District in Bethesda, and didn’t have much money, and thought, “What are we going to do to attract attention?” We wanted to do something for the artists.  And in listening to people—gallery owners, several of the artists and arts organizations—we decided to establish an award open to all artists.  And, at the time, to me, “contemporary” just meant “what they’re doing now.”

Landscaping Wall With Shrubs, by Gary Kachadourian, winner of the 2013 Trawick Contemporary Art Award.

MSAC: What do you look for in arts organizations that you want to either help or invest in?

CT: It’s the people.  I’ll give you an example—my first millennial group experience. I was at a community meeting about downtown Bethesda and this young man got up—scruffy beard, t-shirt—but he was so eloquent! So I went up and introduced myself and he said “we’re starting up this theater group, Flying V.” So I kept up with them, and six months later went to Play in a Day, one of our Bethesda A&E District events, and Flying V was there, along with Olney and Round House and Imagination Stage and others—and equally as good! And that opened my eyes. So, I kept track of them. Three-years later, they got their 501(c)3, are part of the Trawick Foundation’s co-occupant program, and are in residence at The Writer’s Center, producing fabulous original work. So yes, it's the people!