Festival surpasses goals, is `a success'

Headliners sold out, listeners more varied, event organizers say

July 01, 1999|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

Organizers of this year's Columbia Festival of the Arts said the 10-day event surpassed their goals and marked a banner season in terms of attendance and revenue.

Though official figures for the 11th annual festival won't be made public for another couple of weeks, Katherine Knowles, the festival's executive director, said the series was a "tremendous success."

Last year's festival generated about $39,000 in its first weekend -- almost double the gross from the year before. This year's festival totals are almost certain to exceed 1998's, Knowles said.

Headliners for the festival, which ran from June 18 until Sunday, included jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, theatrical juggler Michael Moschen, classical guitarist Christopher Parkening, Doug Varone and Dancers, and the Jimmy McGriff/Hank Crawford Quartet. All sold out their respective venues, which were located throughout Columbia.

Other marquee performers included the modern dance troupe Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove, who read from her latest collection of poetry, "On the Bus With Rosa Parks."

Organizers estimated that more than 35,000 people converged on Columbia to attend more than 100 events, which included free music shows, street performers, food and arts and crafts demonstrations at Lake Kittamaqundi and Columbia halls and theaters.

Seventy-eight percent of the venues used during the festival, including the 600-seat Jim Rouse Theatre, the Smith Theatre at Howard Community College, Slayton House and the historic Oakland building, were filled for performances -- a leap of 22 percent over last year's tally.

Even before Marsalis opened the festival June 18, people were talking about the events.

"The festival is really beginning to hit its stride, and word of mouth makes a huge difference," Knowles said. "We can create the most wonderful festival in the world, but if no one knows about it, what's the point? But given the response from the audience, people were very excited.

"It's become a very diverse program and there's truly something for everyone," she said.

Padraic M. Kennedy, a festival board member and former Columbia Association president, said the performances attracted larger and more diverse crowds than ever before.

Attendance and ticket sales were at an all-time high.

Kennedy said he spotted a man scalping tickets in front of the Rouse Theatre a few minutes before Michael Moschen's show Sunday.

"The festival has really reached a new plateau when people start hawking tickets outside the theater," Kennedy said with a laugh. "That's a nice sign for any performance, not just in the festival."

Organizers were careful to schedule one major performance each night to ensure maximum attendance, said Pam Mack, vice president of community relations for the Columbia Association.

"We didn't want people to have such a dilemma choosing, and I think we were successful," Mack said. "We've always had one major performer a year who is known to general audiences. We also have artists who are known to more specific audiences as well."

Kennedy said the festival is gaining a reputation as an arts event that always delivers great performances.

"Even if you don't recognize the names of some of the performers, I think people know now that, because it's the Columbia festival, it'll be good," Kennedy said.

With tens of thousands of people converging on Columbia each summer, organizers say the key to the festival's continued success has been programming events that appeal to as broad a segment of the population as possible.

"We've become more sophisticated about how to promote and attract people and provide really great entertainment," Kennedy said. After this year, "we're in a good position to solidify our position within the next five years as the best festival in Maryland."

The festival has developed a reputation among performers as a desirable stop on their summer tours, Kennedy said.

"The artists really love coming here because they're taken care of while they're in Columbia," he said. "They're met by volunteers at the airport, they go on picnics, they've got people driving them around everywhere. And it wasn't uncommon for them to receive standing ovations from the audiences."

Although the festival has grown bigger and more prestigious than anyone could have imagined a decade ago, what more can its organizers do to guarantee its continued success?

Kennedy suggests broadening the festival's reach to include restaurant and shop owners throughout Howard County.

"One thing we haven't pulled off yet is this idea of a fringe festival," he said. "I'd like to see Columbia and Howard County become a destination point during the festival -- where people can go to a bar or restaurant and the festival atmosphere will be everywhere."

With the festival barely over, Knowles is already thinking about next summer.

"There's so much to do right now," she said. "I have to speak with artists for next year because they book so far in advance. We have to apply for grants and talk to sponsors. We have to assess what we think our budget can be.

"People don't realize it, but it's a really intense, year-round job," she said with a sigh. "Putting on a festival -- there's no down time."

Pub Date: 7/01/99

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