Bravo, Columbia!

Our view: Even in tough times, residents appreciate value of supporting the arts

March 01, 2010

In a year when everyone needs to keep a sharp eye on expenses, we were gratified by Columbia residents' decision to continue supporting the arts in their community. Last week, the Columbia Association board voted to contribute $95,000 to the Columbia Festival of the Arts, allowing the 22-year-old annual event to go ahead as planned. It was the right choice, and it was made for all the right reasons.

In tough economic times, spending for the arts is often the first thing to go. Last year, organizers of the festival were forced to reduce their budget from $900,000 to $700,000 just to cope with the economic downturn. Without this year's generous contribution from the Columbia Association, which has been a major sponsor of the event since 1987, there was a serious question as to whether the festival would have been able to survive.

To its credit, the Columbia Association recognized that the arts have an important role to play in building communities, the very mission for which it was chartered. The arts bring people together across lines of race, religion and class; they are the engine of a vibrant and diverse cultural life that helps sustain our economy and nurture our spirits.

Certainly that's been the role of the Columbia arts festival over the years. The multi-disclipinary event that unfolds over 16 days during June incorporates both free and ticketed programs at indoor and outdoor venues throughout Howard County. It's a potpourri of art exhibitions, film screenings, literary events and concert performances by musicians ranging from Blood Sweat and Tears to Judy Collins that draws some 30,000 visitors each year.

Still, the festival gets only a fraction of its financial support from the Columbia Association. The rest comes from corporate donations, grants from state and local governments and individual donors. Festival organizers are hoping to win additional federal dollars next year through a National Endowment for the Arts program that sponsors free arts events for the public.

Small nonprofit arts groups like the Columbia arts festival are an endangered species in the current economic climate. They are struggling to stay afloat and operating so close to the bone that as many as one in 10 could go under before the recovery takes hold.

They need the support of citizens who realize, as did Columbia founder James Rouse, that communities require more than homes, streets and businesses to thrive. They also need lively cultural institutions that bring people together and give them a sense of shared purpose. That is the indispensable role the arts play in binding the ties of community that make all other kinds of development possible.

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