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Elevator Chat with Outgoing Columbia Festival of the Arts Executive Director Nichole Hickey

Elevator Chat with Outgoing Columbia Festival of the Arts Executive Director Nichole Hickey


In 1987, the first Columbia Festival of the Arts was to be a one-time celebration to commemorate Columbia’s twentieth anniversary. Nearly three decades later the festival has become a highlight in Maryland’s summer cultural landscape, showcasing local and international music, dance, film, comedy and performance and visual arts. After 12 years with the festival, Executive Director Nichole Hickey has announced that she will retire after the 2014 event, June 13-28.

June 03, 2014Arts Across Maryland

MSAC: Tell us about this year’s festival! What’s exciting, what’s new?

Certainly the most exciting aspect of our free weekend—June 13-15 on the lakefront—is the East Coast premiere of Strange Fruit’s The Spheres, a one-of-kind performance experience by a troupe of four artists from Australia who suspend above the crowd on 14-foot poles, bending and swaying to seemingly impossible angles. Their aerial dance is hypnotic.  

On the ticketed end of things, Intergalactic Nemesis is a rare theatrical experience that combines classic radio drama with comic book art in a really fun, vintage-style play. We’re also excited about our festival finale performance by Home Free, the country music a cappella group that recently won season four of NBC’s The Sing-Off.


Australian performance art troupe Strange Fruit performs The Spheres, which will East Coast premiere at the 2014 Columbia Festival of the Arts.


MSAC: “Bringing it Home” is the festival theme this year. How will that manifest in its vibe and programming?

There are multiple meanings for sure. It’s the end of my tenure at CFA, but the theme also references our two final shows, the play Letters Home by Griffin Theatre Company and Home Free a capella performance I mentioned.

As a community, the festival and its presentation of local art and music reflect our home.  Columbia Center for the Arts is presenting a reception for an exhibit by Howard County Center for the Arts, with performances by members of Columbia Orchestra and All County Improv Troupe, with students from each of Howard County's 12 high schools.

Local literary highlights at the festival include Baltimore author Katia Ulysse reading from her first novel, Drifting, about everyday people whose homes and lives were forever changed after the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, and Little Patuxent Review joins us to roll out their summer issue, the literary magazine’s first ever to forego a theme.

There are many other local artists at the festival, sharing the stage with performers from as far away as China and Australia. So, the Festival is bringing it home for Columbia, Howard County and the surrounding region.

MSAC: Your husband was a founder of the festival in 1987, and you took over as Executive Director in 2004. What’s changed over the years?

When my husband Michael joined and other community leaders formed the first festival, the result was a three-day event featuring primarily local talent.  In the years that followed, the scope of talent evolved and the number of days and events grew.  We’re now a 16-day festival and the talent we present spans from local to international, and includes a diverse array of artistic disciplines each season. 

In today’s climate, budgets are tighter, fundraising is more difficult and staff has been reduced.  These are challenges faced universally in the arts, and particularly the non-profit arts world. This means we work harder than ever to find the right formula for making our festival a success annually. 

So as much as things have changed over the years, we have worked to keep one thing the same: producing a first-class Festival for a broad and diverse population.

MSAC: Garrison Keillor, Chuck Brown, Philip Glass, Lucille Clifton, Bill T. Jones, Arlo Guthrie… and so many others who have performed at your festival are regarded as central figures in their genre. Which artists have been most memorable?

Blood, Sweat and Tears, America and the Neville Brothers were personal indulgences and, fortunately, well attended. Household names like Wynton Marsalis, Judy Collins, Ed Asner and the Smothers Brothers also come to mind immediately. I love the fact that we can bring iconic artists like these to the Festival where they perform in the intimate settings of our two local theaters, Smith and Rouse.  These theaters give the audience a personal experience not available in the larger venues of the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area.

MSAC: The upcoming festival will be your last as Executive Director. What do you hope the future holds for Columbia Festival for the Arts?

Over the years the Festival has been recognized for bringing important, intimate and celebrated arts programming to a competitive Baltimore/Washington region each June, and I hope that continues long after I am gone.  We have hired a talented successor, Todd Olson, and I am confident that Todd has the experience and skill set to take the Festival to the next level. Our festival is one of only a handful of multi-week summer festivals nationally and we are proud to make that happen for the Maryland arts’ scene.  It is now Todd’s job to work with our local and national partners to create a more year-round presence for the Columbia Festival of the Arts here in Maryland and the Mid-Atlantic region.

MSAC: How will you remain involved with the arts in Maryland after your retirement?

I’m going to get back to doing what I was doing when I was talked into taking the part-time, flexible schedule, deputy director position with the festival: I’m going to once again be a full-time, flexible schedule, visual artist!

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