Every city needs an organization to promote the arts and to develop a unique artistic culture within the community. Columbia evidently has a long, rich history in appreciation for the arts, as the Columbia Music Festival Association was officially founded toward the end of the 19th century and has roots that go back to the early 1800s.
The CMFA was informally producing concerts as early as 1831, and in the 1840s it brought to Columbia the Grand Concerts series, featuring artists from Philadelphia, New York, New Orleans, Boston and Berlin. These concerts were extremely successful and put the city of Columbia on the national and international music map.
The CMFA was officially established in 1897 by Mayor William Sloan as a partnership between government and the community. Headquartered on the corner of what is today Main and Gervais streets, it shared a building with City Hall, which also housed an opera house and theatre. Throughout its distinguished history, the CMFA has stayed focused on its original mandate: “To educate, discover, develop, train, assist, present, produce and promote the arts among the area’s own citizens for the edification of all, and to serve as an arts council and resource for the community.”
The new structure gave CMFA a board of 21 Columbia citizens and 45 representatives from throughout the state, one from each county. Funding from city and county governments, together with private support, enabled the CMFA to offer new concert series in addition to its work as a community arts resource. Under the CMFA, Columbia became an arts leader in the South, far ahead of neighboring communities and states. In 1935, the CMFA was awarded a $10,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation in recognition of the past successes and to lead in the establishment of Columbia Music Festival Association Artists Concert Series.
While the CMFA continued to bring international and national guest artists and orchestras to the Columbia area, it was in 1961 that Dr. and Mrs. Darrell E. Richardson began to research the possibility of establishing a Columbia based orchestra. The first concert of the Festival Orchestra, under the aegis of the Columbia Music Festival Association, was held on Monday, April 29, 1963 at the Township Auditorium; Marian Stanley Tucker was the piano soloist and John Bauer was the violin soloist.
The Festival Orchestra quickly became one of the leaders of the arts in the Midlands. As it grew and developed under the CMFA, the Orchestra changed its name, first to the Columbia Philharmonic, under the baton of Dr. Arpad Darazs, and then to the South Carolina Philharmonic Orchestra, when it merged with the South Carolina Chamber Orchestra.
The CMFA worked with arts groups from theatres and operas to orchestras and dance. In 1972, the Columbia City Ballet, under the direction of founder Ann Brodie and board president Cynthia Gilliam, came under the umbrella of the CMFA. The Columbia City Ballet had been founded in 1961, but it was under the CMFA that the company was able to expand and become a major regional ballet company and a pre-eminent, pre-professional training company.
In 1982, John Whitehead was appointed as executive director for the CMFA. His leadership took the CMFA far past its earliest roots to become truly the city’s arts go-to and resource agency. Artists, both visual and performing, emerging arts groups as well as the stalwarts of the Columbia arts community, have now come to use the CMFA and its resources.
And it cannot be said that John doesn’t love his job. “My favorite part of the work here at Columbia Music Festival is the opportunity I have of interacting with so many dedicated volunteers and talented artists,” he says. “It is rewarding to see fresh new talent grow to become arts leaders. Having the opportunity of seeing young performers from Carolina Ballet go from their first steps on stage to dance as principal dancers in Boston, Cincinnati, Atlanta, New York, Monte Carlo and Russia is special.
“The same excitement goes for singers who started at USC and with the Lyric Opera who are now singing internationally or even teaching,” he continues. “I had the opportunity of working with Joseph Phillips, who recently left the American Ballet Theatre to be a newly appointed principal at the Vladivostok Ballet in Russia, and with Sara Mearns, who is a principal at New York City Ballet, as well as Alexandra Christian and Jessica Teague, who dance at Royal Ballet of Flanders.”
John was chosen as one of the Thousand Points of Light for the United States and was awarded the President’s Volunteer Action Award Citation by President George H. Bush in 1990, for which he was honored at a White House luncheon. John was appointed by Gov. Carroll Campbell to serve on the South Carolina Arts Commission, has received the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award for the Arts, and was named the 2000 Outstanding Fund Raising Executive by the National Society of Fund Raising Executives.
Despite his many accolades, John remains humble. “So many young people, so many artists, and so many volunteers throughout the years have worked with and become a part of the CMFA family of the arts,” says John. “The CMFA’s effect on the community is almost immeasurable.”
Throughout the 80s and 90s, the CMFA organized and assisted signature events such as PUB Night, Horizon Fashion, 1001 Arabian Nights and the Beaux Arts Ball, which features a full orchestra for cocktails and the acclaimed Peter Duchin Orchestra for dinner and dancing.
The Columbia Music Festival Association is indeed a unique resource. It is currently under the presidency of Cydney Berry and is housed in a 20,000-square-foot adaptive reuse warehouse in The Vista. The space offers multi-purpose rehearsal studios, meeting spaces, costume and prop storage and building space. The CMFA also makes itself available to many different performing groups that have need of the small black-box theatre. Groups such as NIA Theatre Company, Columbia City Ballet, Artists for Africa, PALSS and many others have presented successful performances at the CMFA ArtSpace and have rehearsed there as well.
Yet the CMFA remains Columbia’s best kept secret, according to John. “The hardest part of CMFA is building community awareness for the organization,” he explains. “The artists who are working in the community and throughout the region know about us as a resource, but it is difficult to get the general public, those with no ties to the arts at all, to know about us, even though the history is more than 100 years in the making.”
As would be imagined, John has a plethora of fascinating and entertaining stories involving the many artists and performances he has organized over the years. However, he admits that the stories that he can’t tell are far more interesting.
“I remember sitting on a sofa in the old Wade Hampton Hotel talking with Dame Joan Sutherland while her husband, Richard Bongyne, took a walking tour of the city,” says John. “She asked me to fix a drink and then pulled a bottle of Scotch and a silver teaspoon from her rather large handbag … one teaspoon of spirits, filled to the brim with tap water and no ice. She enjoyed two, and we had a very pleasant visit.
“Another time Eugene Fodor, a brilliant, young, early 20s violinist had just won a prestigious international competition and was booked to play an evening concert here after his concert the previous day in Atlanta. At about 4 p.m. he still had not checked into his hotel. When I finally reached him by phone, he was still in Atlanta and had plans to drive in for the concert that evening, which began at 8 p.m. In a panic, I called one of our board members, Bob Price, who flew his plane to Atlanta, picked up our young artist, and the concert was only delayed by about 15 minutes.”
Currently, the CMFA’s audience development programs have enriched the lives of countless thousands of young people, especially those in Richland County School District One, and its volunteer programs for community service projects are ongoing. Many performers who have become a part of the CMFA Family of the Arts are on stages all over the globe, but most are still here in their native Midlands.
“They are the audiences of today, the artists of today and the creative class that enriches life in Columbia,” says John.