Jill Womack has lived the fast-paced, big-city life in both New York and Los Angeles pursuing her love for theater, but nothing excited her more than the idea of coming back to her comparatively unpretentious hometown of Columbia.
For Womack, the executive artistic director of Theater Reaching Young People and Schools, or TRYPS, there were three main attractions of living in a Midwest town of fewer than 100,000.
“First, the quality of life here is so great — a 15-minute rush hour is so much less wearing than an hour and a half rush hour,” she said. “Secondly, Columbia is a wonderful, diverse community that’s rich in the arts. For a town of this size, there’s so much going on.
“Then for me, personally,” Womack said, “there was a chance to fill a void in an underserved, artistically isolated area where there was no children’s theater at the time. Now, there are children’s theaters in Boonville and Fulton (in addition to Columbia), showing there is a great need for it in the area.”
Area arts organizations such as TRYPS, can apply for funding from the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs, are what helped Columbia earn recognition as Missouri’s most “creative community” by the Missouri Arts Council in November.
A committee appointed by the Missouri Arts Council selected its winner based on its “total service and contribution of the arts to the community,” Executive Director Beverly Strohmeyer said. “The committee was looking for a community that uses the arts to promote tourism, economic and civic growth and to attract new businesses or residents.”
The Missouri Arts Awards will be presented in a ceremony at 2 p.m. Feb. 7 at the Capitol Rotunda in Jefferson City.
To Jon Poses, executive director of Columbia’s “We Always Swing” Jazz Series, the award seemed appropriate.
“You would be hard-pressed to go around the country and find a more developed art community in another town of Columbia’s size,” Poses said. “For example, our jazz series is one of a handful — and I really mean a handful — of community-based jazz organizations in the country.”
Poses also acknowledged the presence of many other thriving arts outlets creating the “lively scene” Columbia enjoys.
“It’s an anomaly to have a documentary film fest like the True/False Film Festival in a market this size,” he said. “There are also for-profit venues like the Blue Note, which hosts national touring acts, and jazz clubs like Murry’s. By and large, you do not find jazz clubs outside of major cities.”
The True/False Film Festival will take place in March for the fourth year featuring 40 to 50 documentaries and providing a chance for film aficionados to meet and ask questions of some of the filmmakers.
True/False draws film directors and enthusiasts from all over the world, and last year 10,000 tickets were sold, said Ann Youmans, travel coordinator and office manager of the festival.
Film directors coming to the festival from the East and West coasts are often surprised when they learn that after flying into St. Louis, they will have to “get in a shuttle van and travel two hours through corn fields to get here,” Youmans said. However, the benefits they bring to the festival are plentiful.
“It’s an opportunity for people in Columbia to join in international discussions,” Youmans said. “It brings current events to their doorstep.”
Another Columbia event that brings artists to town from far and wide is the Plowman Chamber Music Competition, taking place on March 31 and April 1. Sponsored by the Missouri Symphony Society, the Plowman event is the fourth-largest chamber competition in the country with 30 national ensembles competing for the top prize of $5,000, said David White, executive director of the Missouri Symphony Society.
The Missouri Symphony Society owns the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts, 203 S. Ninth St., which leases the facility out to local, regional and national arts organizations in addition to the symphony society’s events, White said. In total, he said the theater is used 18 days per month.
“In Columbia, there is never a night where there’s not some type of cultural event going on,” White said. “It’s an incredibly active community artistically.”
White praised both the Office of Cultural Affairs and the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau for their financial support of Columbia arts organizations.
“The Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau hotel tax fund grants us money to host events that in turn bring tourism to the community,” White said. “The city of Columbia leadership also is incredibly supportive — not only does the city produce an incredible three-day event for the arts in the fall, they also provide funding for arts organizations through submission of proposals.”
Marie Hunter, manager of the Office of Cultural Affairs, said the department has an annual budget of about $350,000, about a quarter of which — $85,000 — is designated funding for Columbia arts organizations.
Hunter said the Office of Cultural Affairs feels lucky to have money from the city. “Although it’s a very small piece of the city’s pie,” she said, “most communities don’t budget anything for the arts.”
Hunter said the state award could be used to attain more arts funding for the city.
“To be recognized the first time the award is given, there’s a certain amount of esteem,” she said. “Strategically, we’ll absolutely use that recognition to get additional grants from this day forward.”
Another way Columbia supports art funding is through the “Percent for the Art” program, which allocates one percent of the cost of designated capital improvement projects totaling more than $1 million, such as the Wabash Station renovation, to Columbia arts organizations, said Ken Greene, chairman of the city’s Commission on Cultural Affairs.
Hunter said she thinks a combination of factors work to create Columbia’s creative atmosphere.
“There’s a critical mass of active arts organizations and talented individuals,” she said. “Then there’s the environment of university and college settings and a supportive city government. By virtue of fact the city has the OCA, it’s a statement to the community that the arts are important to the local economy, environment and education.”