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Though Bowen is modest enough to say that the brunt of work managing many creative groups, performances, workshops/classes, galleries and even a café falls upon the 40 dedicated board members and almost 200 hard-working staff, faculty and volunteers, it is Bowen’s guidance that set the vision. Her goal is for Maryland Hall to be the creative and performing arts center in Annapolis and Anne Arundel County.
“Linnell has been a star supporter of the arts in Anne Arundel County and particularly at Maryland Hall—our community center for the arts,” says current artist-in-residence, composer, and musician Rob Levit. “It can be really tough to navigate all the competing currents and interests in Annapolis, like funding, new construction, and changing demographics. But Linnell has managed to keep Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts at the front and center of community vitality with its diverse course offerings, performances, resident artists, and companies.”
Her love of the arts (she’s a self-proclaimed Phantom of the Opera buff) and position as executive director grew from her previous endeavors as a high school teacher and as a volunteer and staff member with the Historic Annapolis Foundation (HAF)—the organization founded by Anne St. Clair Wright, whom Bowen credits as an inspiration. In addition to her Maryland Hall work, she is an active voice with such groups as the Annapolis Rotary, Chamber of Commerce, Mitchell Gallery Board at St. John’s College and the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance. From past to present, she is a woman who made a difference in our community.
It was the year after World War II ended when Bowen’s father moved the family from Orlando, Florida (where she was born), to Maryland, settling in Glen Burnie. Bowen attended 4th Avenue Elementary School. During those formative years she took piano lessons, which planted a seed in her—an appreciation for cultural arts. In the fourth grade she started piano lessons with an instructor she cites as an early inspiration. “He was very much like the composer-turned-high school band teacher in the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus.” Bowen then discovered the tenor saxophone, which she played all through high school. She laughs, recalling, “I played piano and sax until I discovered boys.”
When her family moved to Severna Park, Bowen attended Annapolis Junior and Senior High schools, located in the building that would be transformed into Maryland Hall just over 20 years later. Indeed, she did discover one boy in particular—Paul “Duke” Bowen—who attended Severn School. They met when they were 16-years-old and he accompanied her to the senior prom at Annapolis. After graduation in 1958 both attended the University of Maryland and graduated. Shortly thereafter they married and settled into a life together—she a high school history teacher at her alma mater, Annapolis High School, and he as an Air Force Lieutenant. “I’ve always loved the ability of teachers,” Bowen says. “And I love to see people learn, so I taught history.” It would prove to be the profession that led her to the next phase of work in her life—volunteering for the HAF—but not without a little help from home. In 1966, the couple had their first-born, daughter Julia, and three years later son Paul was born. “I really loved teaching but then I had two kids. And in those days you couldn’t stay home with the kids [on work leave], you had to give it [work] up. So that’s when I became a professional volunteer.”
For the next 18 years Bowen gave her time and energy to the HAF as a docent, leading groups through the historic streets and sites of the city. “It was a fun thing to do and that’s where I learned about the history of Annapolis and preservation.” Working side-by-side with Wright, preservationist and HAF founder, afforded Bowen the opportunity to learn about the dedication and ambition needed to head a nonprofit organization. Bowen recalls, “She was an artist, she had vision, and [laughing] I learned all my good and bad habits from St. Clair Wright. She was a woman who made a difference—who was a force.” Bowen pauses. “And some people can pull others together for a vision. And I saw what Annapolis could be.”
The vision of exposing all that Annapolis and its community had to offer was beginning to materialize in the form of HAF activities, some of which Bowen spearheaded. She organized and led, 16 years ago, the very first Annapolis by Candlelight tour, in which several Historic District homeowners open their doors to the public. And when she learned that her son had been accepted to the United States Naval Academy in 1987, Bowen not only volunteered her family as a sponsor family for midshipmen for four years, she also successfully organized city walking tours for the new plebes arriving each summer.
In 1994–95 she helped organize the first Annapolis 300th anniversary celebration (commemorating Annapolis being named Maryland’s capital in 1694), which lasted two years, and served as president of the Cultural Arts Foundation. Meanwhile she found time to take classes on the art of fund-raising at Goucher College in Towson. Those pursuits would converge, propelling her to an even greater role in the Annapolis community. “I learned all about the arts groups and how poor they were and how they needed fund-raising to get organized and they needed public relations. And I just felt that art in our community was really important. The job [executive director of Maryland Hall] became open and I said, ‘Wow, I think I can do that.’ So I took this job 12 years ago. And I think that Maryland Hall makes a difference in our community.”
For Bowen, directing the course of Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts is not a full-time job—it’s a full-time passion. Over the years she has guided the cultural center’s finances, staff, classes, performances, and resident artists—and also attends a lot of performances during the day and evening. “I sit in the back of the auditorium,” she says, “so that I can see, firsthand, the reaction of everybody when they leave the performances.”
Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts is home to Annapolis’s four major performance companies: Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, Annapolis Chorale, Annapolis Opera, and Ballet Theatre of Maryland. The cultural hub also supports up to 6 artists-in-residence, numerous auxiliary arts clubs and organizations, diverse arts classes for all ages, and several galleries where local and national artists display their visual art.
Levit offers a glowing endorsement: “Linnell has been a tremendous mentor and champion of my own growth as an artist, performer, and activist. One only needs to stop by Maryland Hall on a busy night of gallery openings, symphony, chorale, dance, and more to see (and hear) the impact Linnell Bowen has had in our community. Her mission has been to keep the spirit of the arts in Annapolis inspirational, vibrant, and enduring.”
During her tenure as executive director, Bowen has established several events and programs that are now popular mainstays at Maryland Hall. The most successful annual event, by far, is Arts Alive!, a gala evening fund-raiser. The biggest fund-raising event for Maryland Hall, it draws a sellout crowd each September. This year marks the event’s 10th anniversary. Another favorite program is the Emerging Artists series, which spotlights local performing artists. Bowen explains, “What’s so cool with the Emerging Artist series is that we keep doing it, and doing it, and now the audience has grown. Instead of having 10 people, we have over 110 people a night. It’s nurturing young artists and I think that’s very worthy, because where else can they perform?”
What does the future hold for Bowen? The recent past has helped to answer the question. Three years ago Bowen learned what she considers two very important life lessons. During a successful recovery from a stroke she learned to listen well to others and she learned to focus on what she could do, not on what she could not do. This has translated to Bowen’s continued dedication to Maryland Hall and her specific focus on instilling the cultural arts within children. She admittedly has cut back on some of her involvement with other organizations. “I learned you can’t be in two places at once.” But Bowen is as passionate as ever before—even more so—about the direction of Maryland Hall and the role it will play in the lives of young people and the community.
“We touch lives in so many ways and yet we have a generation that’s underexposed to the arts,” she says. Bowen recalls the joy of schoolchildren who recently witnessed a Lakota Indian rain dance demonstration—something so completely unique to them—and how they were utterly mesmerized. “Kids need to see live performances,” she believes. “I think art in the schools is my ticket now.” Bowen is currently lobbying the legislature to fund the arts in schools and working on creating a partnership with the Anne Arundel County Board of Education.
Touching lives is the calling card of Linnell Bowen. Whether it be teaching history, leading tour groups through the streets of Annapolis, creating special events, raising funds for the arts, or simply being a great and active mother of two (grandmother to three), Bowen continues to pursue feel-good endeavors that inspire the community around her. “Disseminating art to people, whether they are 1 or 80 . . . I just think people are happier with art and music,” she proclaims. When asked how long she plans to keep at it, she quickly replies, “As long as it’s fun, I’m going to keep doing it. And right now it’s as fun as ever.”