ORAL HISTORY: Atlanta’s Black Arts Movement at the Crossroads

In what will likely be historicized as one of its most prescient endeavors, the National Black Arts Festival, in its 25th anniversary year, chose to honor the late Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) as a Legend — a hallowed designation shared with art stalwarts such as Sonia Sanchez, Katherine Dunham and Gordon Parks. Who better to crown a quarter century of being the United States’ largest conglomeration of the African Diaspora’s cultural offerings; and to christen the next 25 years, than the veritable progenitor of the Black Arts Movement, the Black Power Movement’s aesthetic brethren? In this long view genealogy, the National Black Arts Festival becomes only the most recent iteration in a vein of festival-like gatherings dedicated to the arts — free spirited, unapologetic, unassimilated black art. Formally named black arts festivals began in Harlem in 1966, and in Baraka’s Newark in 1967, bracketing an era of both tragedy and triumph for African Americans in the United States.

Though Crack was on the verge of systematically destabilizing predominantly black communities, in 1986, former Fulton County Board of Commissioners chairman and the first director of Atlanta’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs, Michael Lomax, saw a last-gasp opening to institutionalize the arts and preserve African memory through aesthetic means. He envisioned a “Black Spoleto,” then the nation’s leading assembly of performing arts held each year in Charleston, S.C., with BAM echoes. A commissioned feasibility study from consultants in New York tabled the questions, “Was there a need for the Black Arts Festival and if so, where would it be?” The answer was unanimously, “Yes” and “Only in Atlanta” — a term that would later become the tagline for the festival.
Indeed, pre- “reality TV” Atlanta was a “different” place in the late ‘80s. Though a pre-globalized hip-hop was continuing to incubate in the Northeast, Atlanta had a gumbo of academic, art, civil rights, black business and Black Mecca credentials, real or imagined. An arts festival here, with a seemingly embedded support system, made sense.
Since, the ebbs and flows of the Festival have been the stuff of institutional lore. Year after year of solid, timeless artistic programming was neutralized by debt and nagging questions of relevance by an increasingly unimaginative patron base. And Atlanta’s current capacity to nurture the artistic progeny of Baraka remains unclear: Can the NBAF, one with a subtly more corporate complexion than its forbearers, continue to survive, possibly thrive — and how?
“There is no one I fear losing like the poets,” Baraka lamented in his eulogy for poet-scholar Louis Reyes. Struggles aside — the National Black Arts Festival pledges to work diligently to keep the spirit of the Black Arts Movement — the artists, the filmmakers, the musicians, the novelists … the poets — alive and well.
Stephanie Hughley | The National Black Arts Festival’s first Artistic Director: There is a need for people of African descent to be able tell their own stories and learn about their own history so that they can have a voice in the present and be prepared to move into the future. So, I absolutely, unequivocally believe that there is a tremendous necessity for us to continue to celebrate artistic contributions. Where it should be is another — hard — question. Unfortunately, we’ve built our institutions in models that are not sustainable. Most of the cultural institutions that are built are sustained by people of European descent who are relatively wealthy and donors who write million-dollar checks because they believe very strongly that their culture is really important and that it deserves to be perpetuated forever. We just don’t have that yet — people of African descent writing million-dollar checks, and building and sustaining institutions through their contributions. I think our model is wrong and flawed. I think the National Black Arts Festival would best be suited inside of another kind of institution like a library or university system, or something that had that type of model that was going to sustain it and be sure that it would always be there.
Big corporations are looking for volume. They are looking for getting the most out of their dollar in terms of how they transfer your consumers to their consumers; they are looking for big ticket items, big name artists and of course they are looking to be good corporate citizens. But I think that unfortunately for many of our black institutions we get relegated to the [non-profit arm] of the corporation. We never are really able to get into the big marketing dollars of the corporation which is where all the money is. Marketing people are looking for the volume. And if you have a big performing arts center in your city … which Atlanta does … then most of those big dollars go to that institution; and because that institution is built on that same model, they’ve been able to build a sizable endowment that will basically guarantee its sustainability way into the future.
So, should the NBAF be a part of the Woodruff Arts Center? If that’s going to be the major arts institution of our city, why not have something celebrating black cultural productions? Partnerships are not strong enough … it isn’t going to sustain you. You have to be a part of the institution, like the Alliance Theater is to the Woodruff Arts Center… like Jazz at Lincoln Center is to the Lincoln Center. You have to be a part of a larger institution or else it is very hard to sustain, especially if you don’t have a really well-known brand. So I think a new model has to be created. What is the next generation going to do to create a new model for sustainability for our cultural institutions? One of the reasons I think the Atlanta University Center is perfect for the National Black Arts Festival is because you have students who have to be thinking about the future and they have to create new models that are going to help sustain institutions.
Sonya Halpern | The National Black Arts Festival’s Immediate Past Board Chair: It’s no secret that we’ve certainly had our share of difficulties. By the end of the fourth quarter of 2012, and then January and February of 2013, the Board realized that the way we had been doing things was no longer working. Given the new realities with the changes in the way that funding was coming down and the changing expectations of the audience, we needed to make some tough decisions around what we would do. Rarely does an organization really have to do a financial deep dive while they are putting back into place really strong governance, while they are putting into place what would be a [milestone] anniversary season celebration; while planning for the future. And as the new chair, I came into the position fully understanding that there were a lot of people in the community that didn’t necessarily think that the National Black Arts Festival should continue. They were questioning its relevance: Is there a need for a NBAF? Is this an organization that needs to continue or has it run its course? With some of the financial struggles that we were facing, there were some who asked, “Shouldn’t you have this figured out by now?” At the end of the day, any organization that gets to be any age, goes through hills and valleys. Everything is always changing.
We reduced our debt by 70 percent year over year; we streamlined the way that we operated and thought a lot about infrastructure with our board elections. We started to do more work in terms of governance procedures and the board’s oversight of the organization. We added six new board members — new blood and new energy to a board that has virtually stayed the same for quite a number of years; and we mounted activity that felt and looked different, and was worthy of an anniversary celebration. We tried some new things last year, and learned some new lessons from what we tried. One of the significant changes is that instead of having the summer celebration live within a 7- to 10-day period in July, we expanded the format and we actually mounted activity in July, August and September. We did that understanding that it would allow audiences to intersect with us more; it would give our sponsors higher visibility over a longer period of time; and it would allow us the bandwidth to really be successful in the way that we implemented programs.
I’m giving this organization my full-time attention because I understand how important an NBAF is. We say that we are the premiere convener of art and artists of African descent; that is not a small feat. We are the oldest multidisciplinary arts festival in this country focused on arts and artists of the diaspora. The work that we do is as important now as it was when we first began.
A. Michelle Smith | The National Black Arts Festival’s First Executive Director: Right after the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. kicked all those doors open and we just walked right in. The late ‘80s were a positive time for the arts because there was plenty of money floating around. Michael Lomax and the Fulton County Arts Council gave us $350,000 and simply said ‘go make us something incredible. …We began with zero corporate sponsors — it was a hard sell for corporations to put their staff members on our boards. But by the time I left five years later, and more so now, the NBAF board reads like a Who’s Who of corporate Atlanta. Sure there was the Dogwood Festival and others, but we made art — black art — more approachable and we allowed art to meet you wherever you were. We created an aesthetic paradigm that set the tone for the years to come. The festival, like any institution, has had its precarious moments, but the fundamental premise has not changed. It has endured — to stay relevant, to honor the tradition, to welcome the new artistic spirit, to fuse the traditional and the contemporary, and to be an economic generator for the city and its artists.
Grace Stanislaus | The National Black Arts Festival’s Immediate Past Executive Director: This triggers memories of my years as curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem and also the re-examination of my career trajectory that led to Atlanta and my role as executive director of the National Black Arts Festival.
I’m reminded about the engaging conversations I had with artists in the museum’s artist-in-residence program — conversations about the creative process, artistic integrity, the lure of the marketplace, the commodification of art and of the artist and about how artistic success is defined and measured. These conversations took place in an institution that was established during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s primarily in response to the exclusion of artists of African descent from mainstream museums, collections and exhibitions, from representation by mainstream galleries and from art history books. The point is that there’s a parallel and an alternate history related to the experience of traditional and contemporary African and African-American art and artists. And their stories are often not framed around white privilege and access or the fall of the isolated artist/genius from an Ivory Tower.
So, what are we bemoaning about the so-called death of the artist as we know it and the birth of the creative entrepreneur? For centuries artists have been creative entrepreneurs in ways that were specific to the time in which they lived; they have been influenced, for good or bad, by patrons and the patronage system, have made artistic decisions based on access or lack of access to materials and support, and their work has been influenced by technological advances. For centuries artists have been in the marketplace, whether commissioned by the wealthy Medici family in Italy or by the tribal kings and chiefs in Nigeria or Ghana.
I’ve always been more interested in the alternative narrative. In this narrative pre-eminent African-American artist Romare Bearden is protesting outside of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to bring attention to the lack of people of color on the staff and at all levels of the mainstream institution. And in the alternative narrative Bearden is instrumental in establishing the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Studio Museum replaces the European patron and the patronage system, a system in which the lucky or the well-born or influential artist was made a member of the court and commissioned by Popes and wealthy noblemen.
From my vantage point, the emergence of the self-empowered artist, the artist who takes charge of his/her own career, who seeks financial gain and success within or outside of the marketplace, is a good story. Yes, some of us privately bemoan when any artist appear to lose their creative way or the work appears to cater too much to the appetites of the market. But if we remove the narrative from the vantage point of Western art history, the question becomes whose right is it to judge when the isolated “genius” has fallen from the Ivory Tower, especially if the story ends with the artist landing on solid financial ground and making a living and supporting his/her family?
Commodification, commercialization, co-option, consumerism, greed, lack of integrity are the dangers that lurks in the marketplace and at the center of the vortex of power and privilege whether in politics or the arts. But when a former Studio Museum artist-in-residence makes great work and is successful in the commercial marketplace, I feel like celebrating and taking credit for having been a part of the story.
And another point about the form and functionality of African art, all objects made in traditional African societies weren’t utilitarian or made by artists whose name, style and technique weren’t recognized or celebrated by the community. So much of Africa art and culture has been mythologized in this way in the Western imagination. Whether in Africa they used the European terms artist, artisan, craftsman, we can imagine that discussions about form, functionality, beauty, aesthetics and purpose were considered, if not discussed. And also that artists had conversations about the commerce of their trade and about getting paid by the Oba, king or chief for their masks or sculptures, most of which now grace the walls of our Western museums and galleries.
Atlanta is carrying on the torch of the Black Arts Movement because the National Black Arts Festival continues to exist after 27 years and because our mission continues to focus on presenting and celebrating the contributions of people of African descent in all disciplines of the arts. From the very beginning, NBAF was aligned with the incredible flowering of Black literary, visual, performing arts and culture that defined the Black Arts Movement as it emerged in the United States in the 1960s in tandem with the Black Power Movement. Harlem, where Baraka established the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School, was the center and catalyst of the Movement, and Atlanta was another because of the Civil Rights movement and NBAF. To celebrate the life of Amiri Baraka, one of the fathers if not the father of the Movement, during our 25th anniversary was simply coming full circle.
The collective need to see the past, present and future in Atlanta is for me embodied in the symbol of Sankofa. Among the Akan people of Ghana, Sankofa is represented as a bird whose head is faced in the opposite direction of its body. The symbol is interpreted as “We must go back and reclaim our past so we can move forward; so we understand why and how we came to be who we are today.” Learning from the past in order to move forward requires deep and honest reflection as well as the capacity for forward and progressive thinking and action. The question at its heart is, what lessons have the past taught us that can inform our decisions about the kind of world we want to leave our children and their children’s children? Georgia and Atlanta’s incredibly rich and complex history, including the state and city’s role in the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, offers a bounty of lessons to take forward as we shape the future today.

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