Columbia Festival of the Arts launches new channel and two contests

This year, the sound of music did not drift over the grounds of Merriweather Post Pavilion. The stage remained dark and the lawn void of concert goers as the venue remained closed for the 2020 concert season due to the coronavirus pandemic.

For those who enjoy the experience of a live Merriweather concert, all is not lost.


The Columbia Festival of Arts’ new Columbia Arts channel will soon feature clips of past live concert performances at Merriweather, according to Ian Kennedy, executive director of Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, owners of Merriweather.

“We found a bunch of great YouTube videos of Merriweather concerts over the years that I just submitted to the arts channel,” Kennedy said. “You can get a little bit of Merriweather in this year without actually going.”


The new Columbia Arts Channel debuted last month and offers audio experience walking tours, film screenings, artist talks and more thanks to collaboration of multiple organizations coming together “to do something really kind of unique,” according to Robert Neal Marshall, marketing director for the Columbia Festival of the Arts.

“We are literally in the process of building,” Marshall said. “That’s the plan, to keep adding content.”

The arts channel, at columbiafestival.org, was first envisioned during this year’s Columbia Film Festival. Traditionally held in conjunction with the Columbia Festival of the Arts, which was canceled this year due to COVID-19, the film festival still took place virtually.

“It was a viable option for films and we thought we could do more virtual programs,” Marshall said. “In the arts, everyone is struggling. What could we do to support each other?”

Done as a partnership with Horizon Foundation, other partners of the channel include Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, Tourism Howard County, Downtown Columbia Partnership, Howard County Arts Council, WTMD radio and Howard Community College.

“It’s a great place for people to go to engage with the arts in this new virtual world until we return to something more normal,” Kennedy said. “I have a few other ideas for the channel to include. It will continue to grow with more and more content.”

One of the first offerings on the arts channel was an audio collection accessed by a free mobile app. Users of the app can hear performances by past artists at the Columbia Festival of the Arts or take a narrated Art Walk tour through Columbia. For the Halloween season, an actor from Chesapeake Shakespeare Company was commissioned to do a reading of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” for an audio Halloween walking tour around each of Columbia’s lakes — Centennial Lake, Lake Elkhorn, Lake Kittamaqundi and Wilde Lake.

“Right now, we’re offering all services for free,” Marshall said. “We’re supported by sponsors and partners, corporate partners and grants. It’s important to us.”

The Columbia Arts Festival is also hosting two contests, a Songs of Strength original music competition in conjunction with WTMD-89.7FM, and a This My Story competition.

For the Songs of Strength contest, submissions can be any kind of music and about any subject. There are categories — one for youth under age 18 and one for adults. Participants do not have to be residents of Columbia.

“We encourage people to be creative and inspiring,” Marshall said. “We have real good professionals hearing the music.”

Entries will be judged by a panel featuring professional artists and community leaders, including Kennedy, Anita Gillete, a Broadway and television star, and Rain Pryor, an actress and comedian who is the daughter of the late comedian Richard Pryor.


First prize in the adult competition is $750 and $550 in the youth category. An audience choice award is $250. Winners will be announced in January 2021.

Participants in the This is My Story competition are asked to write about what inspires or challenges them during this time. Producers of winning stories will be announced at the end of November and will receive $50 gift cards.

“We want the stories recorded in their voice,” Marshall said, and stories should be no longer than seven minutes. “These entries will be featured on our app.”

Rules for both contests can be found at columbiafestival.org.

“A lot of people are in dark places about what is going on and feeling isolated,” Marshall said. “These unique programs help bring the community together.”

While Marshall is looking forward to the day when people can gather together again to celebrate the arts, he is thankful for the various virtual platforms.

“Virtual is going to be here to stay,” Marshall said. “Even when we go live with the film festival again in theaters, we will still keep virtual. Nobody really wants to sit through 60 films.”

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