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Columbia Festival mines its silver anniversary

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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.

"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.

Literary events have included Robert Bly, Reynolds Price, Rita Dove, and even Hal Holbrook impersonating Mark Twain.

Although festival planners are proud of the events they have presented in recent years, Hickey says the festival budget took an "immediate hit" when the recession began. The Columbia Festival of the Arts had a $1,000,000 budget in 2007, Hickey says, and has a $700,000 budget in 2012. Ticketed events once numbered as high as 16 per year, whereas there are eight ticketed events this year.

The grants and corporate support necessary to help underwrite ticketed events has yet to fully recover from the recession. This means that the 3,000 to 4,000 people who on average attend the ticketed events each year have had fewer events from which to choose in recent years.

As for the approximately 30,000 people who show up for the free LakeFest weekend, Hickey acknowledges that the festival "spends over $200,000 to put it on with no return."

However, LakeFest qualifies as the emotional heart of the festival. "We've made a very determined decision not to cut the LakeFest budget," Hickey says firmly.

Festival has financial challenges

Those who oversee the Columbia Festival of the Arts are aware of the challenges they face to keep the festival going.

"From when the economic downtown began in 2008, our funding was affected and as a result the organization had managed fiscal responsibility," Schwabe says.

"It's challenging for all nonprofits," concurs Sachs.

Among the cuts in ticketed events that Hickey made in recent years was a reduction in classical music and dance programs. She explains that local classical music organizations fortunately have strong seasons of their own. As for dance, she says that it's expensive to produce and festival ticket sales for dance events have been relatively slow.

"We're trying to maintain the quality and something had to go," Hickey says. "Our dance audience has dropped off in recent years. We could not afford to do two or three (such) events" each year.

Perhaps there is a silver lining for such cuts in the 25th anniversary schedule.

"It's been a positive thing to reduce the number of events," Hickey states.

She explains that while fewer ticketed events have been staged in the last several years, more tickets have been sold for shows that remain. She said the ticketed events had more than 85 percent occupancy last year; occupancy in previous years was in the 50 to 60 percent range.

Hickey and her fellow festival planners have been crunching a lot of numbers lately, because they want the festival to remain on the local scene.

"It's extraordinary that a community our size has such a festival," says Howard County Council chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, who represents Columbia's downtown on the council and who also is on the board of trustees for the festival.

"When I look at the potential for downtown, there are opportunities for the festival" that include a revamped Symphony Woods as a possible venue, Sigaty continues.

Sigaty also cites plans for increased residential and business growth downtown as boding well for the festival. Looking beyond downtown Columbia, she adds that the festival already utilizes sites elsewhere in Howard County and may be able to do even more such events when the economic climate improves.

"The festival has been around for 25 years and wants to be around for another 25 years," says Schwabe.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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