The Columbia Festival of the Arts’ (CFA) winter 2016 offerings, dubbed “Beyond The Blues,” marked exceptional growth for the festival as it moved further into its new format as a multi-seasonal event.

Just how exceptional was it? “Since coming on board in September, with more time to develop new strategies, I have seen a 103% increase in audience attendance, compared to the fall festival,” said Marketing and Communications Director Robert Neal Marshall, of the winter CFA event. This was the result of not only innovative programming, but expanded marketing and social media, revised website tone and content, and growing partnerships and new community associations.

Six out of 10 events, from staged readings to music and film, sold out entirely. Many patrons called at the last minute, seeking tickets for some of the star performances — such as Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour — only to be told no seats were available. A few events had last-minute standby access; however, many potential spectators were turned away due to packed houses. Festival staff were suggesting that if festival regulars wanted tickets to key events, they should go online or call the office well in advance.

“Our Winter Festival far exceeded our expectations and proved to attract the most diverse audience we have had in many years,” said CFA Executive Director Todd Olson. “We are simultaneously satisfying existing appetites with jazz and blues and film, while also whetting new appetites for August Wilson and original plays and conversations with art makers in our community.”

In addition to the success of Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour; an art exhibit at Columbia Art Center, with an opening reception featuring blues guitarist Samuel James; “An Afternoon of Jazz with Vince de Mura”; and a reading of “Black Lives, Black Words,” were all sold to capacity. Also, there was not an empty seat in the house for a screening of Twenty Feet From Stardom that included an impassioned and popular post-screening talk-back with Tim Gordon, president of the Washington, D.C., area Film Critics Association.

In its new format, the CFA continues to honor the tradition and mission that has been part of its 29-year history by bringing major artists to Columbia. “It was thrilling to see some of the top artists of our time performing modern jazz, mostly in the style of the Miles Davis Quintet of the mid-’60s, right here in Howard County,” said Ellicott City’s Steve Sokolow.

One of the new directions for the CFA is the addition of several special events that are programmed between the four seasons. “PostSecret: The Show” (based on the website postsecret.com, created by Maryland native Frank Warren) introduced more than 350 first-time CFA attendees and added another sold-out performance to the festival.

Warren made a public appearance at the performance, speaking with the crowd and signing books; within days of public announcement of the event, more than 100 tickets were sold. At the top of the show, actor/director/writer T.J. Dawe (who co-created and directed the extremely popular “One Man Star Wars” and “One Man Lord of the Rings”) asked the audience how many people were attending the Smith Theatre at the Horowitz Center for the Performing Arts for the first time. Festival Development and Support Services Coordinator Diana Forbus said, “It was thrilling to see that 75 % of the audience raised their hands.”

Another special event will feature Deanna Bogart, who will be at the Smith Theatre on May 14. “Within one week of tickets going live, [more than] 33% were sold,” said Marshall. “This event will be another sell-out.”

Bogart appeared at the first CFA in 1989 and has returned multiple times over the years. She has emerged as one of the most eclectic performers in contemporary blues today. As an award-winning multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter, Bogart has been a successful bandleader for more than 20 years, playing piano and saxophone. Her eclectic style of “blusion” has garnered her numerous awards and accolades while touring throughout the U.S. and abroad.

Spanish guitarist Mark Edwards, who recently won the 2016 Rising Star Award at the 19th Annual Howard County Arts Council Celebration of the Arts, will be performing as part of the upcoming CFA Spring “Viva La Vida”-themed festival, running weekends from April 8–24; the Edwards (who is making an encore appearance) show is also nearly sold out.

For more information, call 410-715-3044 and email robert@columbiafestival.com.