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Columbia Music Festival Association

1897 –

The CMFA was established as a partnership between the government and the community. It was the outgrowth of the late 19th-century Dertheck Music Club, whose members worked closely with government leaders to formalize the relationship between government and the private sector for promoting the arts.

The Columbia Music Festival Association was founded in 1897 by mayor William Sloan and the city council as a performance consortium, with a purpose of promoting music and the arts in the capital city and throughout the state. It was originally headquartered in the Columbia Theatre, the opera house that was located on the corner of today’s Main and Gervais Streets; that building was destroyed by fire in 1899.  The second Opera House, which also served as City Hall, was completed in 1901.  That building was the home of the CMFA until it was abandoned by municipal government. Though the Association kept its connections to city government, it would move its headquarters to various non-government properties over the years, eventually settling in Columbia’s historic Congaree Vista. The CMFA and the CMFA ArtSpace are currently housed at 914 Pulaski Street, in the heart of the Vista.

The CMFA was established as a partnership between the government and the community. It was the outgrowth of the late 19th-century Dertheck Music Club, whose members worked closely with government leaders to formalize the relationship between government and the private sector for promoting the arts. In the closing days of the 19th century, the CMFA functioned as a community resource that presented concerts by touring artists and ensembles; the association also helped put on performances in churches, schools, and even some private residences.

During the early part of the 20th Century, the CMFA continued to present concerts both by international artists, local artists, and community groups. Ensembles such as the Pittsburgh Festival Orchestra, the Victor Herbert Orchestra, and the Russian Symphony Orchestra played in Columbia. The concerts also had a direct outreach to the servicemen stationed at Camp Jackson (the predecessor to today’s Fort Jackson), and were an important part of the life of the community. There was also considerable cooperation between the University of South Carolina and the city through the Columbia Music Festival Association.

Over the course of the 20th century, the CMFA shaped music and the performing arts within Columbia. An orchestra was organized under its aegis in the early 20th century, and the Association supported the Columbia Afternoon and Evening Music Clubs. With the establishment of the Artist Concert Series in the 1930s, the Afternoon and Evening Music Clubs became more closely integrated into the CMFA. In 1938, the CMFA partnered with  music director Hans Schwieger to develop a 500-voice children’s choir and present full orchestral concerts.  In 1939, CMFA established an Orchestra School which provided free weekly lessons to South Carolinians who wanted to learn how to become orchestral musicians. During its life, the Orchestra School provided over 1500 lessons 96 individuals from 19 different communities in South Carolina In 1940, CMFA established the Southern Symphony Orchestra. Conducted by Hans Schwieger, the Southern Symphony gave 20 concerts throughout the state; reached over 50,000 people, and engaged children’s choruses or local soloists for the programs.

After the eventual failure of the Southern Symphony Orchestra, the CMFA underwrote a concert in a bid to reestablish a local orchestra.  This orchestra performed in the spring of 1963 and featured Harry Jacobs of Augusta, Georgia, as conductor. The Columbia Festival Orchestra was born out of this concert. It was also during this time that the CMFA moved its headquarters to the Arcade Building on Main Street.

The Columbia Festival Orchestra quickly captivated the community. As it grew and developed under CMFA, the Orchestra changed its name, first to the Columbia Philharmonic, and then to the South Carolina Philharmonic Orchestra after it merged with the South Carolina Chamber Orchestra. In 2014, the South Carolina Philharmonic celebrated its 50th Anniversary season.

The CMFA also participated in promoting opera in Columbia. In 1956, the Columbia Lyric Theatre was established. During its early years the company presented many light operas, and cooperated with community groups such as Town Theatre and later the Workshop Theatre of South Carolina. In 1973, the Lyric Theatre joined with the University of South Carolina School of Music. It was during the 1977-78 season that the company changed its name and became the Columbia Lyric Opera; all its productions, again under CMFA, were presented in cooperation with the UofSC School of Music. Grand Opera from Faust and Madama Butterfly to Tosca, La Traviata, Merry Wives of Windsor, Die Fledermaus, La Boheme, and Hansel and Gretel–with local singers joined by international stars–became the operatic fare for the city.

CMFA headquarters were relocated to the Columbia Museum complex on Senate Street in 1965, taking residence in the historic Horry-Guignard House on the corner of Senate and Pickens Streets. That location was a hub of all arts activity.  The Senate Street location was alive with the city arts festival, Mayfest, coordinated by the Columbia Action Council and the CMFA.

It was also in the mid-1960s that the CMFA took part in the Civil Rights Movement. The CMFA Artist Series audiences at the Township Auditorium were quietly integrated and the educational outreach was extended beyond Columbia College and UofSC to include the historically black institutions Claflin College, Voorhees College, and SC State University.

In 1972, Columbia Music Festival Association actively began promoting dance. In that year, the Columbia City Ballet, under the direction of founder Ann Brodie, came under the umbrella of the CMFA. While the Columbia City Ballet was founded in 1961, it was during its collaboration with CMFA that the company was able to expand and become a major regional ballet company and a pre-eminent pre-professional training company. In 1988, Ann Brodie resigned her directorship as the City Ballet became a professional company; later that year Ms. Brodie, together with John Whitehead and a small group of Columbia dance leaders, formed Ann Brodie’s Carolina Ballet as a civic ballet company.

In 1982, Whitehead was appointed as Executive Director for the Columbia Music Festival Association. His work further expanded the CMFA’s involvment in local dance with the Columbia Dance Theatre becoming a part of the CMFA in the mid-1980s. The Association further expanded its support of local arts as various organizations, including DanSework Jazz, MorningStar, Vibrations Dance Company, the SC Shakespeare Company, and FBN Opera for Children, came under its umbrella. Today, ColaJazz, Hip Hop Family Day, BluPrintX, and Creative Stylez Dance Company are exploring new artistic directions under the aegis of CMFA. Chamber music groups and newly emerging individual artists also became a part of the CMFA’s family of the arts.

In 2009, CMFA further expanded its arts-related portfolio through its creation of the Stanley Donen Film Festival. CMFA invited the Nickelodeon, Columbia’s arthouse movie theatre, and the Columbia Film Society to partner in the festival. The Stanley Donen Film Festival would become known as the IndieGrits Festival during the 2010s.

Finally, the 21st century saw the CMFA develop the CMFA ArtSpace. ArtSpace is an arts resource for the community and an incubator for the arts where arts organizations and individual artists can grow, develop, and thrive in an atmosphere of  cooperation, shared purpose, commitment, diversity, and unity. As the communities mature, the CMFA has been able to adapt to meet the needs of this burgeoning arts environment. With well over 23,000 square feet, the ArtSpace will continue to provide meeting, rehearsal, exhibition, and performance space, as well as a home for arts and artists for generations to come. Thus, the CMFA has developed far beyond its roots as a municipal-private partnership for bringing music to Columbia to become the city’s go-to resource for the arts.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Columbia Music Festival Association
  • Coverage 1897 –
  • Myrtis Parker
  • Author John Whitehead
  • Author Nan Swearingen
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date May 9, 2021
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update December 10, 2020
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