By Logan Dubel
The faces featured in “The People of Ocean City” have surely had an impact, but to say that our latest interviewee, Rina Thaler, has had an impact on the resort, would be a major understatement. Thaler, Executive Director of the Art League of Ocean City, has spent her entire career building and creating success stories from the ground up where no one else would have ever seen it. Now, at the top of her game, she continues to fearlessly lead her organization and community to greater heights.
“I always knew there was an artisan community because of the natural beauty that surrounds us, but there was no sense of togetherness. The Art League filled that void.”
Role: Executive Director, Art League of Ocean City (2013-Present), previously President and Past President of the Board of Directors
Hometown: Queens, New York
First Job in Ocean City: Boardwalk business owner
Education: York College (New York), double-majored in Psychology and Sociology
As a child, Rina Thaler loved Crayola crayons, but little did she know, that she would one day become the first lady of art in Ocean City, Maryland. For decades, she has worked to advance the cultural arts in the community and provide a home to thousands of creators across the shore. She has undoubtedly accomplished that goal and more, but when she first moved to the town, her sights were not set on a canvas.
Upon moving to Ocean City with her husband Jeff from the big apple in 1979, Thaler, just 20 at the time, worked on the Boardwalk, owning and operating stores selling jewelry, jokes, and clothing. Rina and Jeff, who met at just 14, made a great team, working grueling long hours from sunrise to sunset. They quickly realized that living in a beach town meant tons of hard work, not lazy days lounging in the sand.
The first of Thaler’s eight stores, Three Dimensions, was located right by the Firefighter’s Memorial. Their business footprint in the resort grew rapidly. Other stores included Glitter and Gold, The Seahorse Shop, and Fantasea Jewelers. Later, Thaler co-owned Planet Maze.
“I was making jewelry, and he was selling novelties. We were just teenagers but sold to all the stores on the Boardwalk,” Thaler said. “We wanted to make Ocean City our permanent home, and in 1980, bought Three Dimensions, one of our customer’s stores. Every year after that, we opened another store and owned eight at one point. I thought we were only going to stay in Ocean City for three years, but we’ve been here for 42!”
Despite her business career, Thaler never lost sight of her artistic ambitions. In 1987, shortly after the Art League of Ocean City opened its 94th St. location, she moved to the Little Salisbury Neighborhood and took watercolor classes at night.
“Art was always a passion of mine, and I grew up with it. My mother taught art out of her house to all the nearby kids,” she explained. “In the winter, there was so little to do in Ocean City, it’s a ghost town. I occupied myself at the Art League.”
Even when her twins were born in 1992, Thaler continued attending classes, improving her skills, and meeting others in the local art scene. Once her children began attending school, her commitment and presence at the Art League increased. However, it was not until she missed the chance to attend a workshop that her involvement skyrocketed.
“I had missed out on signing up for a workshop and could not get in,” she recalled. “One of my friends recommended that I join the board of the organization, and that way, I would always know when the good classes were.”
As we now know, Thaler did far more than just join the Art League’s Board of Directors. After exiting the retail business around 1999, her focus was dead set on the arts. She eventually rose in the ranks to become President, guiding fundraising efforts for a new 94th St. building years before construction ever began. Thaler’s business savvy background allowed her to network with officials at City Hall and within the state government to secure funds and approval for the project. Her husband, who owns an architectural engineering company responsible for designing and completing countless buildings across the resort, even drew up the plans for the new Art League headquarters.
Other trademark initiatives of Thaler’s that continue today include the Sandcastle Home Tour, Plein Air event, and Art Adventure Camp. She has also entered community service through the Empty Bowl Project and attracted millennials through the Ocean City Film Festival. Additionally, she has spearheaded public art campaigns, brightening up numerous spots around the resort.
Before its massive expansion, the Art League was a quaint local group without a day-to-day staff. Upon opening the new site in 2013, the board realized that a team was desperately needed. They appointed Thaler, an experienced artist, businesswoman, and leader, to serve as executive director.
Over the past decade, the Art League has grown tremendously to match the stature of its grand facility.
“Some people still don’t know what a wonderful place this is. We transcend all age groups and have found that there is a way to apply art to everything in life,” Thaler said. “Art should be part of tourism – whether it’s drawing people here for events, supporting children, or building communities for people that retire here. There is a lot of need.”
Although the Art League now receives universal praise, people did not always recognize its value. For years, people questioned Thaler’s efforts and why having an arts center was so valuable. Now, they see its gratifying impact on residents and tourists alike.
The same grassroots and intense leadership style that propelled Thaler to the top of the Art League has served her well in other community ventures. Among her many titles, Thaler is also known as a loyal and committed follower of Judaism. She never let go of her personal identity, even after moving far away from home.
“When we first moved to Ocean City, people thought we were crazy for going somewhere without any fellow Jews to meet. At the age of 20, we didn’t really care, but once we had kids, we knew we wanted them to grow up knowing who they were and having all the traditions we enjoyed and grew up with,” she reflected. “Everyone was accepting of our religion here and we eventually met other Jewish families and formed a temple, allowing us to have a full-fledged synagogue family.”
Thaler herself eventually became the Sunday school teacher and formed a group for Friday night services. At one point, services were ironically held in the old Art League building. Decades later, Temple Bat Yam has an official home in Berlin and an active congregation. Without her leadership, the synagogue would not have evolved into a bustling community. This is just another way in which Thaler, through her passion and drive, has made her mark on the shore.
Rina Thaler, known far and wide as the commander-in-chief at the Ocean City Center for the Arts, is one of the hardest-working people in town. No matter where she goes, she creates a community of hard-working and passionate people. Her impact on the local arts scene is undeniable. As for the future, the biggest question is who will be the next Rina?
Rina Thaler’s Ocean City Favorites
Favorite Restaurants: The Hobbit and Longboard Café
Favorite Hotels: Residence Inn and the Clarion
Must-Stop on the Boardwalk: Firefighter’s Memorial and Boardwalk Arch – Thaler’s stores were located around that area
Outdoor Activity: Spending weekends on the beach with friends and bike riding on the Boardwalk
Rainy Day Activity: Getting a fix of art at the Art League
Favorite Time of Year: September – the shoulder tourism seasons have expanded, and it stays nice outside, but there is still plenty to do
My hope is that Ocean City maintains its status as a first-class destination and a great place to live and raise your children. It must be a vibrant community with cultural amenities like art, and we have to always remember how lucky we are to wake up in such a beautiful place every morning.