Jaree Donnelly has been a gentle, guiding presence at the Arts Barn since it opened its doors nearly 15 years ago. At the beginning of this month, she stepped away from her post to begin a new challenge as a graphic artist with an 8(a) woman-owned federal contractor in Reston, Virginia.
But she and her husband, Jack, will keep their Arts Entwine Studio at the Arts Barn, which Donnelly said “really is a home to me.” Saturdays, she said, will find her working in their studio and “I’m still going to teach. It’s hard for me not to do that; it’s such a love of mine, especially the kids.”
Donnelly said that she accepted the new position because it is fulltime and uses her arts and program management skills. Before opening her own art studio, Donnelly had worked for years for a federal contractor.
“I loved what I was doing with the city,” she said, “… but Jack and I would like to retire in 10 years or so; it’s just that time that we need to really be socking the money away and not paying our own benefits.” According to the Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC) annual “Economic Impact of the Arts” report for fiscal year 2015, statewide “part-time operations and artistic positions made up 71% of the paid employment.” In the Greater Washington region, part-time operations and artistic positions make up 82 percent of the nonprofit arts workforce. The report was based on data collected from Maryland arts organizations and programs supported by MSAC.
During her week off before starting her new position, Donnelly reflected on her years at the Arts Barn and how the visual and performing arts center has grown.
“We have this little arts center tucked in with us that is so unique—most people don’t have that,” she said. “That’s what brought me here in the first place. We had recently moved into the neighborhood. … I wanted to be part of the arts right here in the community.”
Donnelly started in May 2002, a couple of months before the Arts Barn’s July grand opening. She and Jo Klein-Duke were hired as part-time front desk staff, but they quickly found themselves doing more than that. “Our first administrator that was hired unfortunately got ill right after she was hired,” Donnelly recalled, “so it was really on Jo and my shoulders to manage the building so we just figured it out.” The two worked with city systems, tailoring them to the Arts Barn facility before it opened.
They continued to innovate. “I laugh because sometimes the shows were small at first, and the attendants—there would only be one of us, and we’d be down here with an assisted listening device listening to what was going on upstairs because we couldn’t leave the front desk. …. It was stuff like that; you just figured out how to make it work. We loved it.”
Klein-Duke’s specialty was performing arts, Donnelly said, “and mine was visual arts so we really complemented one another, too, which was kind of lovely as well.”
Over the years, Donnelly has taken on many jobs at the Arts Barn and for the City of Gaithersburg. She has overseen exhibits in the city’s three art galleries, taught classes, workshops and camp sessions, enhanced marketing and communications, served as public art assistant, and provided facility support for the Arts Barn. Most recently, she stepped in as interim class and camp coordinator.
“I was actually working almost fulltime to keep up with everything … since mid-September,” she said. “But it’s all things that I have done or had done at one point. Since I have been here since the beginning, there was not much in this building that I haven’t done other than the theater program, to be honest.
“I just soaked up all the different aspects of it,” she added. “I think that the benefit of coming in right from the start was that I got to do that. … I had to know how to do everything, from how to fix the crazy stuff in a historic building that goes wrong all the way to handling the administration of the building.”
She loves the history of the place. “I’m probably one of the only people who have been up in the cupola area other than our public works. You can actually climb all the way up into the rafters of our building.” The cupola, she added, used to have a light that shone at night.
At the Kentlands Mansion, she is fascinated by the basement, which she described as a maze of little, cavernous rooms that may have evolved from the different buildings that have stood on the same site.
And then there’s the Arts Barn ghost, whom Donnelly said she has sensed in the evening when it is quiet. “You’ll have the sense of him moving about the building—you’ll hear things upstairs. The lights will swing in the Green Room just out of the blue, and you know that nobody has hit them or touched them.” Downstairs, the toilets will sometimes all flush at the same time around 10 or 11 p.m., “so the sensors are getting triggered in the bathroom.”
The ghost, she said, has never felt threatening. Sometimes, “I’ll walk through and get that chilly feeling at night. My husband has felt it, too … so we know there’s something,” she said.
A visitor once told them that the ghost was a young stable hand. “But I have no way of validating that. It was just one person … who said they had that sensitivity,” Donnelly noted.
With its interesting past, the Arts Barn, Donnelly said, has been steadily evolving into an ever-brighter future. A recent workshop with Nellie Chao introduced experienced artists to the P’o Mo “splash ink” technique of splashing watercolor and ink on shikishi gold boards.” I really wanted to start driving some of our work towards these more advanced artist workshops,” Donnelly said, “because there are not a lot around and I think it’s a really interesting niche.”
She hopes that even more people come to the Arts Barn “and know what goes on here and take advantage of it. … I don’t think people always realize the caliber of work that comes through here, particularly our concerts—they are amazing. … And I think our artwork in our galleries is really beautiful. … We’re bringing in some better-known artists and some different artists and different work. … Class-wise, we’re starting to offer some more unique opportunities … like with the workshops, new instructors and trying to reach out to groups that we haven’t before like seniors and teens.”
Combine the caliber of work with the intimacy of the Arts Barn space and, Donnelly said, “that’s kind of special in and of itself. … After our performances, the actors come down and the musicians come down and we’re just hanging out … the same with the artists when we have an artists’ reception.”
For instance, after the recent Floyds Row show, Donnelly said the artists visited with audience members for an hour, talking and laughing.
And the Comedy & Magic Society that recently returned to the Arts Barn for a post-Thanksgiving show, “the up-close magic (during intermission), they just show you what they do and I think that’s just really fun. They started with us early on, and they used us as their incubator for new tricks and new illusions.”
One of the magicians, she said, would steal her watch all the time. She never figured out how he did it.
“It was always super fun,” Donnelly said of the magic group, a sentiment that seems to sum up her nearly 15-year tenure at the Arts Barn.