Merriweather, the arts, remain at the core of Columbia's future

Before the new city of Columbia had any residents, it had an artist-in-residence.

Gail Holliday's iconic work in the early days of Columbia defined the blossoming community, helping craft its identity and make it immediately recognizable to new and potential residents. The playful scenes depicted with bright colors in her posters brought Columbia's neighborhoods to life and these works continue to hold a cherished place in the hearts of residents.

They were also part of a larger effort by Columbia visionary James Rouse to build a city — a physical place — and a community — a cultural identity — at the same time.

The arts were critical to Rouse's success in this effort, and he knew it.

In addition to hiring Holliday and giving her wide latitude, Rouse chose to make Merriweather Post Pavilion one of Columbia's first buildings. Located in the center of the city's downtown, Merriweather was designed to attract new residents from Washington, D.C., and Baltimore by showcasing world-class performing arts, and over the last 50 years, it has done that and more, becoming one of the most acclaimed music venues in the country.

The arts, like Merriweather, flourished in this new city, strengthening the bonds of community and the values that continue guide Columbia's maturation and support the growth of its diverse residents.

When a new master plan for Downtown Columbia was enacted in 2010, it envisioned a bright future for the heart of this city and, drawing inspiration from the original Columbia plan, included arts as a central and critical component of its future.

Reflecting Rouse's belief that art should be part of our daily lives and incorporated into our public spaces, the new Downtown Columbia plan requires public art as part of each new development project.

The "Petal Play" flower sculptures outside of the Metropolitan apartment building in Downtown are fun examples of what's to come. These sculptures capture some of the whimsical notes of Holliday's original Columbia posters and enhance our experience of the work and streetscape through interactivity.

The vision for arts in downtown is coming to life in other ways, too.

At the end of 2016, ownership of Merriweather Post Pavilion, in the midst of its first major renovation, transferred from the Howard Hughes Corp. to the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing and expanding artistic, cultural and civic programming throughout Downtown Columbia.

Under the commission's ownership, Merriweather will continue to host world-class performers but it will also begin to host new community programming that is affordable, diverse and reflective of the values upon which Columbia was founded. Already, the commission has presented a series of movie nights at the venue, bringing families and visitors to the cherished amphitheater. The commission is developing plans to expand programming in 2018 and beyond.

Just across Merriweather's fence line, a new stage has taken shape — the Chrysalis. Symphony Woods has long been a beloved park in the heart of Columbia's downtown, and with the addition of the Chrysalis and other planned amenities, its use as a performance and gathering space that complements Merriweather will continue to grow.

Toby's Dinner Theatre is also on the cusp of an amazing transformation. It will soon house a full arts complex, including multiple theaters, a gallery, classrooms and studio space.

In all, Symphony Woods, Merriweather Post Pavilion and the new Toby's arts center will provide a critical mass of spaces in which the arts can thrive.

While these physical improvements are well on their way toward completion, the challenge ahead for the organizations involved in these projects is to bring the spaces to life in new and exciting ways. This will require hard work, collaboration and strong support from the community.

The commission recognizes the important role it plays in promoting arts and helping nurture the bonds of our community, long described as a "garden for growing people." By putting the arts at the center of Columbia's original plan and the new plan for Downtown Columbia, we have shown where our values lie. Now we must ensure we carry these values forward throughout the years and decades ahead.

Just as it was 50 years ago, a dynamic and exciting vision exists for Columbia's future, offering this community an opportunity to build on the success of its founding and fulfilling the original promise of a "complete" city for generations to come.

This piece originally appeared in the Columbia Flier on July 13, 2017. The original piece can be seen here.