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Small-Town Vibes, Big Art Aspirations


From a historic lighthouse to a bustling main street, Havre de Grace, Maryland, has both the Chesapeake Bay scenery and a charming downtown to make it the popular destination for weekend getaways. But peer a little closer, and you’ll also find a thriving arts scene that is garnering interest from locals and visitors alike.

Darlings Dahlias painting by Lissa AbramsLissa Abrams painting Darlings Dahlias, 2022 Harford Plein Air Festival; Photo courtesy of Lissa Abrams

This fall, Harford County is capitalizing on that interest with a repeat of a countywide arts festival that debuted last year.

From September 15 to 30, Arts Across Harford brings a host of visual and performing arts to the fore. The festival begins in the county seat of Bel Air with the Harford Plein Air Festival Exhibition and the daylong Bel Air Festival for the Arts, an outdoor arts and crafts festival that draws some 15,000 visitors each year. It wraps up with the 60th Annual Havre de Grace Art Show.

In between, art lovers can watch plein air painters at work, listen to live music, take in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical as staged by the Tidewater Players or One KILLER Night: A Tribute to Jerry Lee Lewis at the State Theater, see an exhibition of members’ works at the Harford Artists Gallery in Bel Air, and so much more.

Last year’s one-week festival proved so popular that this year it has doubled in length and in the number of arts organizations participating, says Matthew Scales, executive director of Visit Harford.

Bel Air festival for artsThe Bel Air Festival for the Arts helps to kick off the two-week Arts Across Harford; Photo courtesy of Town of Bel Air

But “Arts Across Harford” isn’t just the name of the festival; it’s also a statement about the growth of the arts scene in this rural county. “People are beginning to see that Harford County is a place not just for agriculture and agritourism; it’s also a great arts destination,” Scales says.

Witness the opening of a new arts-focused park in Havre de Grace: Graw Alley (scheduled at press time to open late summer or early September). The grassy one-acre park is lined with some three dozen murals painted on fencing and wrapping around a one-time antiques shop that within several years will be the new Harmer’s Town Art Center with space for exhibitions, classes and artists’ studios.

The murals at Graw Alley are among some 50 pieces of public art throughout the town. You’ll also find three art galleries, including the artists’ cooperative Arts by the Bay. Bel Air has its own public art walk with 38 sculptures, murals and other works, including 15 heart sculptures highlighting the town’s moniker: “The Heart of Harford.” And it’s not unusual to see painters at work in the towns, on nearby farms or in Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton.

Man playing guitarLive music can be heard at a variety of venues in Harford County; Photo courtesy of Town of Bel Air

“Havre de Grace is no longer just people strolling through on antiques tours. There’s live music every night and so many art galleries, and it’s just a whole new generation of [young people in] town,” says Brian Goodman, a cofounder of Harmer’s Town Art Center. “You have people coming to town for Pride festivals and art shows. Young artists and bands that once played in cities like Baltimore are now playing here in Havre de Grace, and it’s exciting.”

Harford Plein Air Festival paintings displayed in Maryland Center for the ArtsHarford Plein Air Festival paintings will be displayed in Bel Air, part of Arts Across Harford; Photo courtesy of Maryland Center for the Arts

In Bel Air, the Maryland Center for the Arts has its own grand plans for an art center several years in the offing. The hope is that by late next spring, the center will be hosting outdoor concerts on property that will eventually be home to a brick-and-mortar facility focused on the arts for all ages, says Bob Willenbrink, executive director of the Maryland Center for the Arts.

While it keeps an eye on the future, Harford County isn’t neglecting familiar attractions like antiques shopping, sailboat watching and waterfront dining. As it assumes a new vibrancy as an arts destination, it’s “mixing and mingling to create something new and better,” observes Goodman.