What's next for the Columbia Festival of the Arts

Nichole Hickey, the outgoing director of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, photographed with a plastic flamingo found at the Festival's headquarters at Columbia Lakefront.
Nichole Hickey, the outgoing director of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, photographed with a plastic flamingo found at the Festival's headquarters at Columbia Lakefront. (Photo by Nate Pesce)

When Nichole Hickey became the executive director of the Columbia Festival of the Arts in 2004, she says she imagined she would stick around for three years, just until the annual summer festival celebrated its 20th anniversary.

She stayed on 10 years, making her the festival’s longest-serving executive director. Hickey, 68, is retiring July 31, just as the festival is poised to make several major changes aimed at widening its audience and serving a bigger role in the growing Columbia community. Hickey says she is ready to hand over the reins to incoming executive director Todd Olson so she can return to her work as a fine artist.

“I think I earned the right to retire,” Hickey says with a laugh. “I’d like to get back to making art.”

Hickey spent a total of 13 years with the Columbia Festival, starting in part-time in administration before becoming director in 2004.

“She does a wonderful job each year in the programming of different events.” says Lawrence D. Coppel, president of the Columbia Festival’s board of trustees.

After receiving 75 applications for Hickey’s successor, the six-person search committee narrowed the selection to three finalists before selecting Todd Olson, a director and playwright who spent 11 years as artistic direction at the American Stage Theatre Co. in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“This is an opportunity I cannot pass up,” Olson said in a statement. “CFA is a 27 year-old organization that produces one of the region’s highest-attended arts festivals, with past acts that include Itzhak Perlman, Aretha Franklin, Philip Glass [and more].”

As the new director, Olson will be tasked with expanding the festival to include events throughout the year, strengthening partnerships with other organizations and expanding its donor base. Those are some ideas that emerged from the board’s new strategic plan that identified key priorities for the festival after conducting a yearlong review.

Founded by business and civic leaders in 1987, the Columbia Festival of the Arts started as a three-day festival with the aim of bringing in visual and performing artists. It now spans 16 days with ticketed events held at the James Rouse Theatre and Howard Community College and a free three-day festival, LakeFest, which brings artists and performers to the Columbia lakefront. Last year, the festival brought nationally known legendary performers, like the New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and eclectic, emerging ones, like Pittsburgh’s Squonk Opera.

Festival organizers have developed a theme for the first time for the 2014 festival, “Bringing it Home.” In keeping with this theme, they are bringing back a number of performers who have played at the festival before. These include The Peking Acrobats, performing June 21 in the Jim Rouse Theatre, and the Hampton Rock String Quartet, a string quartet that plays the music of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.

Also on tap for this year are Home Free, an a capella country group based in D.C.; fiddler Natalie MacMaster who brings her husband and five kids on tour with her; and Intergalactic Nemesis, a live-action radio play and comic book.

LakeFest attracted more than 27,500 last year, compared with the peak attendance of more than 30,000 in 2012. Hickey attributes the attendance drop to parking issues due to construction around the town center. This year, a shuttle will take attendees to the event from an offsite location.

But festival organizers are looking beyond June as they expect Olson, the new director, to hold events throughout the year.

“We want to create more partnerships with organizations to try to expand the festival so it’s more of a year-round event,” Coppel says.

The idea is to have a quarterly presence by partnering with other local organizations, including ARC of Howard County and Vantage House Retirement Community, who can help promote art throughout the county. The festival can partner with other arts organizations throughout the country to split the cost of shuttling performers from one city to the next, Hickey says.

“It’s very expensive to present a show,” Hickey says. But the nonprofit can save $5,000 to $10,000 if it splits the airfare costs with other groups, like the Ann Arbor Summer Festival or the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven.

Growing the budget and expanding the donor base will be one of Olson’s challenges. Prior to the recession, the festival had a budget in excess of $1 million. Now it’s about $800,000.

“We want to maintain the level of programming as best as we can,” in spite of the budget cuts, Hickey says. “We’re making our way back, but we’re not there.”

Festival staff have come up with new programs that seek more from donors. For instance, donors who contribute at least $1,000 get to hang out in the “Green Room Club,” a VIP area where supporters can mingle with artists at the festival.

Coppel says he also hopes Olson will become more involved with the Inner Arbor Trust’s redevelopment of Symphony Woods, whose plan includes an arts park and amphitheater.

“What’s going on now in Columbia is very exciting,” Coppel says.