Envisioning artistic change on horizon


As the Columbia Festival of the Arts welcomes its third leader in three years, some changes are in the works for the 10-day event in June.

The group's new managing director, Nichole Hickey, is expanding the festival's focus on the visual arts and enhancing LakeFest, a free, family-oriented arts event at the Columbia Town Center lakefront.

"What we've really been able to do as a festival is re-emphasize what we see as our centerpiece, which is LakeFest," said Anne Stuart, president of the festival board of trustees.

She said, "Historically, there has been more emphasis on performing arts. With Nichole's leadership, it becomes a true celebration of all arts."

Hickey said the 18th Festival of the Arts, to be held June 10 to 19, will still bring national and international artists to local venues. An opportunity to see big-name acts such as previous performers Mikhail Baryshnikov, Wynton Marsalis and Emmylou Harris in intimate venues such as the 750-seat Jim Rouse Theatre is an important part of the festival's mission, she said.

"To me, that's what's always been highly exciting about the festival," she said. "The artists are so close."

But, Hickey said, at the same time, "the visual arts are playing a much stronger role in what we're doing."

She hopes visual elements will be integrated with performances that use interesting props or dramatic costumes.

There are also more opportunities for visual artists to get directly involved, including at LakeFest.

Hickey said the "ArtPark" exhibit of visual arts in the waterfront parking garage, which began last year, will be expanded to two days. Demonstrations, a fine-crafts area and hands-on art projects for children are planned.

After the departure of Katherine Knowles, who led the festival for six years as executive director, the group had an interim executive director for the 2003 festival. Betsy Brininger was executive director of last year's event, but she did not continue in the role.

Now the festival has replaced the position of executive director with a full-time managing director and a part-time artistic director, an arrangement that it used for its first decade.

A visual artist who works with paint, clay, wood and other media, Hickey became deputy director of the festival in 2002. Her husband, Michael Hickey, a former county schools superintendent, is one of the festival's founding board members.

Janice Gary, who was director of First Night Annapolis for several years, has been hired as artistic director. The group has two other full-time staff members, adds part-time staff in the summer and relies on nearly 200 volunteers.

"We've collapsed the organizational structure, flattened it," said Hickey, a 20-year Columbia resident. "It truly is a team concept."

Also new this year, a 12-member advisory committee is e-mailing ideas and suggestions to more than 120 community members for feedback.

"We're doing more research on how we're handling our programming than in the past 17 years," Hickey said.

A big part of the festival's winter activities involves securing grants and donations that will cover expenses and help keep ticket prices low.

Festival staff members will travel to New York this month for four days of showcases and networking to help select artists.

The staff is working to bring a contemporary dance troupe to the county to work with high school students and to perform at the festival.

Festival staff members would like to find another cultural dance group, at least one comedian and a theater group among other acts.

Hickey plans to use LakeFest this year not only to showcase visual artists, but to kick off the festival.

"The opening weekend is very much focused on community," she said. LakeFest draws large crowds and, she said, it includes local and regional artists.

In 2000, free lakefront activities drew 23,000 visitors over three days. But in 2002, that portion of the festival was suspended to cut costs.

Last year, Hickey was charged with restarting the event, which had about 8,000 visitors over two days.

A variety of musical acts, demonstrations, hands-on activities for children and street performers are planned. Stuart said that during its 17 years, the festival has maintained its original mission to offer a broad spectrum of art forms and create interactions between artists and audiences.

Having an ongoing, well-respected event like the festival "speaks to the quality of life in the community," Stuart said. The festival "is a tradition in the best sense of the word."

Information on the Columbia Festival of the Arts: www. columbiafestival.com.

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