By Pierce Panagakos

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The Old Parish House on Oct. 30, 2020. (Julia Nikhinson/College Park Here & Now)

College Park Arts Exchange (CPAE) has been bringing a broad range of arts programs to the greater College Park community since it was founded, in 1998. 

CPAE Executive Director Melissa Sites underscored the breadth and depth of the nonprofit’s  programming. “We bring all types of arts events, because we’re a multi-disciplinary arts organization … we bring performing arts, visual arts, music, crafts for little kids, dancing; basically if it can be construed as an art, we bring it,” she said.

Birgit Meade, CPAE’s secretary, concurred. “I think we do a nice job providing good programming. I would like to make sure that all people are aware of the good programs. And we do try to reach all kinds of demographics, and have programs for the elderly as well as the young and all in between,” she said.

CPAE’s range of offerings is particularly impressive, given the organization’s humble beginnings and the Herculean efforts of Sites, its chief organizer. “Melissa runs programs all around College Park trying to target all different age groups and interest groups so in the broadest sense people could participate in whatever they’re interested in,” said CPAE President Richard Biffl.

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College Park residents at St. Martin’s Day lantern festival.
Courtesy of Melissa Sites

Sites, herself, is quick to shower praise on the College Park community, noting that the organization is strongly engaged with the city. “Before the pandemic, we were reaching about 9,000 people and doing well over 150 events in a year,” she said. Many of CPAE’s programs are run by residents who offer their expertise for free or charge nominal fees. 

One such expert is Eric Maring, a lifelong musician and CPAE teacher, who also serves on the organization’s board. Maring leads CPAE’s College Park Youth Music Traditions, which has been able to meet virtually during the pandemic. (Maring also offered, separately from his work with CPAE, some 60 virtual performances.) With the easing of some of the pandemic-related restrictions, Maring has been holding in-person practices with the youth group, with necessary precautions in place.

Another hard-working instructor is Allison Hughes, who directs the College Park Chorale, CPAE’s adult choir, and also serves as the organization’s treasurer. Hughes is a huge fan of the organization — and of Sites. “Melissa is definitely the heart and soul of the organization. And she’s just so open to any idea like anybody in the community who has an idea for an arts event, you know, music or visual arts or whatever, to bring it to her and she makes it happen,” she said. 

In addition to benefiting from the contributions of local artists, the organization has received support from the city, county and state levels. In an email, Biffl noted that county councilmembers Dannielle Glaros (District 3) and Tom Dernoga (District 1), as well as former councilmembers Eric Olson and Mary Lehman worked to secure funding for CPAE.

CPAE’s visibility recently got a boost when the city’s Committee for a Better Environment asked the nonprofit to find artists to paint storm drains in the city. Two drains have been painted, with one more to come. CPAE also helped plan the mural for the Route 1 underpass leading to Lakeland. 

Organizers and residents alike agree that CPAE provides the city’s foremost path offering the community access to the arts. They also agree that that path runs through the Old Parish House (OPH), which is the second oldest building in the city. Maring and the youth group have met there, and he has performed there frequently, himself. “It’s really a nice place that you don’t find in every neighborhood,” he noted. 

The College Park Youth Orchestra’s Chamber Ensemble performs their fall concert on Dec. 5, 2021. (Photo by Kyle Heflinger)

A number of CPAE’s board members are OPH fans, too.

Meade noted that she became involved with CPAE after attending a lecture at the venue. “Some professor gave a talk at the Old Parish House. I just attended one of those very successful community talks. And I think that was kind of my first awareness [of the organization],” she said.

While OPH is a typical gathering place for CPAE events, Sites pointed out that the mission of the organization is to bring the arts to every neighborhood in the city, not just Calvert Hills. “It’s vital to our mission to bring the arts to formal and informal venues all around the city,” she wrote in an email. 

Conditions brought about by the pandemic have prompted the organization to experiment with program delivery over the last 2 years, unexpectedly advancing that mission. With OPH closed,, CPAE pivoted to virtual programming. While this has worked well for Maring and the youth group, it’s had a negative impact on Hughes’ work with the adult choir. “We sort of tried some of the Zoom things with the choir, and it’s just awful because there’s the time delay. … the timing is off. You can’t hear,” she said. According to Sites, CPAE has promoted outdoor performances throughout the pandemic, too, in an effort to safely connect the community with resident musicians.

For over three decades, the CPAE has been offering events and activities for and by the people of the greater College Park community. Whether you’re drawn to literature, music or dance; whether you are young or not so young; and no matter your experience level, you need look no further than the College Park Arts Exchange ( to pursue a journey in the arts.