Columbia Festival of the Arts

Music performances at LakeFest draw big crowds to the downtown lakefront. (Submitted photo / June 14, 2012)

More than 30,000 people are expected to converge on downtown Columbia from June 15-30 for the 25th annual Columbia Festival of the Arts.

Most of them will be heading to see the free LakeFest events Friday through Sunday, while others will come during the next two weeks for ticketed events including Rosanne Cash, MOMIX, and the Flying Karamazov Brothers.

The festival's silver anniversary is a testament to the importance that Howard County residents attach to this annual event, and, as festival surveys have shown, to the willingness of people from elsewhere in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania to drive in for it.

It's also a testament to the determination of the festival's organizers to continue this Columbia tradition despite budgetary challenges that arrived with the national recession in 2008.

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"Our reality is we've been living hand to mouth to maintain a level consistent with our history," says Columbia Festival of the Arts executive director Nichole Hickey.

Those who plan this festival and those who track the overall history of Columbia agree that it is integral to the planned community's identity.

"One of the goals of Columbia was to be a complete community and offer its residents all the things one finds in a community," observes Barbara Kellner, director of the Columbia Archives. "Arts and culture are an important part of that. The arts festival brings world-class artists right into our own backyard."

That backyard imagery resonates for others as well.

"I think it's one of the jewels in the backyard of Columbia and Howard County," says festival president Charles Schwabe, who is executive vice president and chief administrative officer of Howard Bank.

The festival's opening weekend outdoor events take place around Lake Kittamaqundi, while the indoor events are mostly staged at nearby venues including the Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School and Howard Community College's Smith Theatre and Monteabaro Hall.

Whether they're headed indoors or outdoors, thousands of people will be assembling in the downtown area.

'This is a celebration'

"When we do something downtown, it creates its own buzz," notes Steven Sachs, who is co-chairman for the festival's 25th anniversary.

Sachs, who is executive vice president and director of Real Estate and Hotel Practice at Willis, goes on to say that there is a "vibrancy you get with people gathering. This is a celebration. When I'm at the Lakefront, for me it's the center. When you look around the crowd, what you see is a canvas of (skin) colors, generations and international flavors.

"It's what I think Jim Rouse envisioned Columbia would be. It's a place where people grow and have diversity, rather than just being a bedroom community."

Like Columbia itself, the festival grew over the years. It's fortunate that the Columbia Archives kept programs, news clippings and other documentation of the festival's early history, because Hickey relates with dismay in her voice that when the Columbia Festival of the Arts once moved from one office space to another, "the hard copy history of the festival went into a dumpster."

Early editions of the festival were notable for the amount of classical music offered. This included appearances by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, New York's Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Baltimore-bred composer Philip Glass, and Howard County-based organizations including Columbia Pro Cantare and Columbia Orchestra.

Equally notable in that earlier history was the very full roster of dance companies, which included Pilobolus Dance Theater, Parsons Dance Company, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, Doug Varone and Dance, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Eva Anderson Dancers, Washington Ballet, Twyla Tharp Dance, and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Assorted star performers over the years included Aretha Franklin, Marcel Marceau, Arlo Guthrie and The Smothers Brothers.

It's also notable that the festival presented many major jazz musicians, among them Max Roach, George Shearing, Cassandra Wilson, Dave Brubeck, Joe Williams, Arturo Sandoval, and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra featuring Wynton Marsalis.