Columbia arts festival ready for big time

Summer celebration draws thousands to performances, artisan demonstrations

March 27, 2000|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

As regional summer arts festivals go, it would be safe to say that Columbia Festival of the Arts has finally hit its stride.

Since its inception 12 years ago, the festival has grown at a steady pace. Tens of thousands of people converge on Columbia each June to attend an eclectic mix of more than 100 events, including free music shows; street performances; food and crafts stalls; artisan demonstrations; and at least one performance by a headliner whose show sells out quickly.

Performers, too, are drawn to Columbia to play at the festival, which is making a name for itself as an event that can draw stars, up-and-coming entertainers and cutting-edge artists.

The Columbia festival is growing at a time when other regional arts festivals are going under, said Katherine Knowles, the festival's executive director.

"We're trying to find a way that creates some kind of support for artists in our region," Knowles said. "People have heard about the festival now. It means we have a reputation. I hope that means we'll be able to attract more great artists every year."

This year, performers will include French mime Marcel Marceau, singer Emmylou Harris, the Washington Ballet and The Next Ice Age, the Baltimore-based ice dancing ensemble.

Beginning this year, the Washington Ballet and The Next Ice Age will make Columbia their summer home through an in-residence program that will allow them to rehearse at local facilities.

Also scheduled to perform at this year's festival are classical guitarist Christopher Parkening, Canadian fiddler Natalie MacMaster, saxophonists Frank Foster and Frank Wess, and poets Lucille Clifton, Roland Flint and Linda Pastan.

Past performers include Wynton Marsalis, Aretha Franklin and the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company.

The festival this year runs from June 15 through June 25 at venues around Columbia, including the 600-seat Jim Rouse Theatre, the Smith Theatre at Howard Community College, Slayton House and the historic Oakland building.

Last year, figures for attendance and ticket sales were the highest ever, and organizers are predicting another banner year.

Now the Columbia Festival finds itself at a crossroads, and organizers must figure out the logistics of staging a growing event.

Knowles said festival organizers are "doing marketing surveys to see what the region will support in a summer arts festival. As we expand our program, we've got to check in with people in the region to see if they'll come. We don't want to go farther than can be supported in Columbia."

"There's no support mechanism [here] to ensure that we'll survive" if the festival expands too quickly, she added. "We've had incredible growth and ticket sales and response. Now we've got to see if we can make that final big jump to the big leagues."

The "big leagues" of summer arts festivals include the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C., the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, Conn., the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts and the Bumbershoot Festival outside Seattle.

Many of the largest summer festivals attract hundreds of thousands of people, and have budgets and endowments that total millions of dollars.

Though Knowles acknowledges that she hopes the Columbia Festival will grow into an internationally renowned event, she appreciates the need to be practical.

"We could become an important intermediate stop for some of the international artists between some of the larger festivals up and down the East Coast," she said. "But we've really got to take a look at how long it's going to take to get to that point."

Robert Cross, artistic director of the Virginia Waterfront International Arts Festival in Norfolk, which has become one of the largest arts festivals on the East Coast in only four years, advises other festival organizers to grow conservatively.

"I always tell people not to spend money they don't have just to get bigger faster," Cross said. "There are a lot of festivals that come and go because they're not run well. If artists know that the festival organizers will pay them on time, that they can get them a good audience, that they're professional," then artists are more likely to return.

Maintaining a successful arts festival also requires commitment and a passion for the arts, said Nigel Redden, director of the Spoleto Festival.

"If the people who organize the festival aren't passionate about what it is that they're putting on, the audience can tell," Redden said. "You have to really believe that the arts are vitally important to your community.

"The best festivals are those that" make audience members feel "transformed," Redden said.

But, he added, no formula exists for a successful arts festival.

"They're difficult to maintain. Some of the best have stopped, which is sad. But they're expensive to put on, and you have to be incredibly well-organized" to run one well, Redden said.

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