Meet the Neighbors: Columbia Festival of the Arts

A journal such as ours requires a vibrant literary and artistic environment to thrive—and even survive. In appreciation of the various cultural entities around us, we present “Meet the Neighbors,” a series where we provide you with personal introductions to a diverse assortment.

I met the people who put on the Columbia Festival of the Arts over champagne, a good way to start any relationship. We were at the launch of the LPR Audacity issue, the first time that the summer iteration of our biannual event was formally part of the Festival.

MOMIX's Botanica

MOMIX’s Botanica, performed at the 2012 Columbia Festival of the Arts. (Photo: Max Pucciariello)

I then attended an intimate reading by award-winning writer Edith Pearlman, hosted by HoCoPoLitSo and part of the Festival. I was there not only because I admired Pearlman’s short fiction but also because she was featured in our Audacity issue. My final Festival events were to be more pleasure than [literary] business: the performance of Botanica by MOMIX, a company of dancer-illusionists, and a reception celebrating the Festival’s 25th anniversary, where I assumed that more champagne would be consumed.

But the derecho intervened. I was trapped in my historic house, built into the side of a hill on a steep bank overlooking the Patapsco River. No power, no phone or computer connectivity and trees down everywhere. So I sipped bottled water instead of champagne. But a mere seven miles away, Botanica went off without a hitch, as did the reception.

Recalling that, I was determined to give the Festival its due by placing it first in the series of articles that will appear here in preparation for the June 22 launch of the LPR Music issue. And I asked Nichole Hickey, Executive Director and CEO, for the inside scoop.

Here’s how she responded:

When asked to give a first-hand perspective of the Festival, I wasn’t sure where to begin or how to summarize both the Festival and my experience with it. Especially not at this time of the year, just weeks away from the 2013 season and days away from our annual gala, which this year featured Paula Poundstone. But I couldn’t let this article pass. After all, it is a perfect fit for LPR readers: you are our audience.

There are so many people who contribute to the production of Howard County’s premiere arts festival each year. We are fortunate to have a talented, capable, hard-working staff, people who year in and year out help make the season the unofficial start to summer in our area. I am also lucky to work with a supportive Board of Trustees as well as the 200 volunteers who offer their time and support annually. And then there are the sponsors and donors who step up each year, providing financial and in-kind resources. There could not be a Festival without all of them.

I am in my 11th year working with the Festival. What began in 2002 as a part-time role as deputy director has turned into a full-time, year-round, 24/7 job. I start with a blank slate each year, conferring with my team on what to present over 16 days in June. Our goal is to offer a varied, well-balanced lineup of non-stop events from the international, national, regional and local scenes that serves to celebrate our own community. Budget, performer availability and a host of other factors help to define each season. It’s a great deal of work, but we have a lot of fun along the way, as well.

The desire to produce an arts event of this magnitude isn’t what brought me to the Festival. My husband, Michael Hickey, was a founder of the Festival in 1987, and we have remained supporters ever since. When the Festival needed someone to help re-staff the organization in 2002, they tapped into my human resources background. Before I knew it, I had stepped into the role of deputy director. Late 2004, the Board convinced me to take on the role of executive director when it again became vacant.

I was tenuous during my initial year, being a visual artist who was suddenly running an organization focused on performance arts. Certainly, one of my first priorities was to identify ways to enhance visual arts programming. I succeeded in doing this, but there is plenty of room for improvement. During my tenure, film was also added as a regular feature and more emphasis was placed on literary offerings. This year, attendees will be able to enjoy the unique pairing of poet Patricia Smith and the Sage String Quartet playing a Wynton Marsalis composition. Programming that melds artistic disciplines is something that I try to bring to the Festival each year.

My job is not without challenges. Budgets are tighter, fundraising is more difficult and staff reductions have occurred. These are universal issues, particularly in the arts and for nonprofit organizations. Also universal is question of audience development: how to best secure the next generation of devotees. Faced with the challenges of the past decade, economic and otherwise, we need to work harder than ever to arrive at the correct formula for making our Festival a regularly recurring success.

Each year, we seek a mix of recognizable names and eclectic acts that we hope will appeal to the widest possible audience. This season’s weekend headliners—Rhythmic Circus, Reduced Shakespeare Company, Pilobolus and Preservation Hall Jazz Band—offer a balanced array of high-energy performances. Additions such as award-winning Sundance movie shorts, the return of Baltimore’s Stoop Storytelling, the zany family-friendly AudioBody, a theatrical hair and makeup competition and the Patricia Smith event add the sort of flavor to the Festival that attendees have come to expect.

When asked about my favorite acts over the years, it’s tough to respond. Blood, Sweat & Tears, America and The Neville Brothers were personal indulgences and, fortunately, the performances were well-attended. Household names such as Wynton Marsalis, Judy Collins, Ed Asner and Smothers Brothers also come to mind.

Nichole Hickey

Nichole Hickey (Photo: Nicholas Griner)

I love the fact that we can bring these iconic artists and others to perform in the accessible settings of our local theaters, the Smith and the Rouse. They provide a personal experience that doesn’t exist in the larger venues of the Baltimore-Washington corridor. That’s what we strive to offer at the Festival: a personal, interactive experience between artist and audience. What’s the best part of the job for me? When I stand in the lobby after an amazing performance and feel the energy of audience members as they exit the theatre. That makes all the hard work worthwhile.

I can’t say where I will be ten years from now, but I do hope the Columbia Festival of the Arts is still going strong and has engaged a new generation of arts lovers.

I completely concur with Nichole, having experienced what she describes for myself last year. The Edith Pearlman reading, for example, was held at a lovely Columbia venue, the Historic Oakland manor house. Sitting in the last row, I was still close enough to engage her without a microphone. But others had good questions and comments, so I remained silent. One person observed that what Pearlman had read was not quite what appeared on the printed page. Pearlman smiled, saying that she never stopped revising. We smiled in assent, and the whatever distance remained between audience and author disappeared.

That reading also illustrates the kinds of synergies that can occur among neighboring cultural entities. Three organizations came together around Edith Pearlman: Columbia Festival of the Arts, Howard County Poetry & Literature Society (aka HoCoPoLitSo) and Little Patuxent Review. The first two brought Pearlman here, and the latter, through a print-issue interview conducted by Susan Thornton Hobby (who not incidentally sits on both HoCoPoLitSo and LPR boards), to an audience extending beyond county borders.

I now offer “An Interview with Edith Pearlman” online, giving it international reach since approximately 10 percent of our blog readers reside outside the States. Click and enjoy!

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One thought on “Meet the Neighbors: Columbia Festival of the Arts

  1. Pingback: The Integration of Art, Music and More: Robin Rose | Little Patuxent Review

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