National Black Arts Festival at a Crossroads

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    Twenty-five years after its thrilling and historic opening, the National Black Arts Festival (NBAF) is in a dark place, with its board members forced to consider closing it down for good.

    In 1988 the Festival launched with more than 108 events in music, dance, visual arts, performance arts, film, theater and literary arts strewn across the city like jewels. Harry Belafonte and Cicely Tyson were spokespersons who touted the event from New York to Los Angeles. Arts aficionados came in from all over the U.S., filling airplanes and local hotels with excited fans.

    That was then. Today the Festival is without a leader – the one year contract of its executive director, Dr. Michael Simanga, was not renewed. It is more than $500,000 in debt. And the public is questioning the Festival’s relevancy and structure.

    “When the board gathered recently,” NBAF board chairman Evern Cooper Epps, former head of the UPS Foundation, told the Atlanta Daily World, “we asked ourselves, ‘Do we shut it down? Or do we usher it in to a new era?’ Thank goodness the decision was overwhelming for the latter.

    “Then, we all breathed a sigh of relief and began the difficult process of trying to determine how to proceed,” she continued.

    The board realized that for the NBAF to continue, they would have to “break it down to build it up,” said Cooper Epps. “That meant reducing the budget and staffing right away.”

    Not renewing Simanga’s contract was a painful step one. “While Michael had the passion and extraordinary creativity, he could not help us turn the corner on a new business model that would sustain the Festival,” she said. “Artistic leadership cannot outtalk money.”

    Simanga feels that he was in the same place that Obama was when the U.S. president was inaugurated. “I came in with a huge financial deficit not of my making and was asked to turn it around in one year,” he said.

    “We need to re-establish credibility, adapt to new economic realities, and create a new generation of art-loving audiences,” he said. “That can’t be done in a year.”

    He believed that the answer to the Festival’s challenges lay in developing partnerships with educational institutions and service organizations to expose young people to the arts. He also felt that there was a need for the Festival to demonstrate a relationship between the arts and humanities.

    He noted, for example, that he created a “Millennial Task Force” made up of new generation young people who could have input into planning the Festival.

    “Ultimately,” he said, “you have to have a product that is saleable to a mosaic of audiences.”

    Kathy Keeley of The Keeley Group agrees. Recently hired by the Festival board to help with restructuring, her organization has years of experience helping non-profits deal with the fallout of what she called “lingering economic challenges.”

    “You have to remobilize, reinvent, restructure and pay attention to relevancy and – most important – to money,” she said.

    The Festival is at a crossroads, Keeley noted, and needs to find a way to be financially viable. The steps are similar for most non-profit organizations struggling for survival, she said:

    • Set up a strong internal structure and process
    • Get your finances in order
    • Engage the community leaders
    • Get into a learning mode
    • Pilot test new products

    “We must ask: ‘What is the fabric of Atlanta? Is the community support for the Festival there? What should the Festival be
    offering 25 years later? What will the public spend money on?'” Keeley said. “And in the meantime, we need to put in the fiscal controls that are needed to sustain the existing structure.”

    “After 25 years, we believe the Festival still stands as one of the city’s cornerstones of artistic excellence and creativity,” said Cooper Epps. “It can transform and adapt to continue in this new age and we are prepared to do what needs to be done.”

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