The first time I heard about the National Black Arts Festival in 1998, I didn't go. I was a practicing artist in my late 20s, but Atlanta's annual summer festival of African-American dance, music, theater, film, and visual art still seemed irrelevant.
Like most young artists, I imagined myself an ambassador of the cutting edge. But the festival that year gave us Ruby Dee, Ntozake Shange, and Maya Angelou as headliners. Artists worthy of attention? Of course. Like many black kids of my generation, repeated viewings of Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf was a rite of passage. But NBAF's lineup that year made one thing clear: If you were going to spend any significant amount of time at the festival, you'd better be comfortable reliving the culture of the Baby Boomers, because younger artists were at best a supporting cast to the headliners' starring roles.
The National Black Arts Festival was founded in 1988 by former Fulton County Commission Chairman Michael Lomax as a biennial, multi-arts festival. NBAF's first installment was, by all accounts, electrifying. The inaugural festival emerged not as a trial balloon, but as a fully formed, nine-day extravaganza that outstripped even its organizers' expectations for a first-time event. From its earliest days, the festival drew audiences from around the globe. NBAF became a marquee event not just for Atlanta, but for the world.
By 1998, however, the festival had already begun to show signs of wear. That year, the AJC's Wendell Brock noted in an otherwise upbeat review that the festival's programming was developing an "aura of sameness." The AJC's Steve Dollar also described that year's festival as resembling a retrospective of the previous five festivals (at that time still on a biennial schedule) more than any sort of nod toward the new millennium. NBAF has been slogging uphill ever since to refresh an aging audience while offering programming true to its founding mission to present significant art from the African diaspora. Even NBAF insiders have copped in recent years to a program that has grown "stale."
The repetitive programming has taken its toll. The summer festival is no longer the international magnet it once was, and the scope has shrunk from a high of 10 days to last year's four-day schedule. NBAF's newly elected board chair Sonya Halpern is frank about the organization's need to change. "There was a time when, internationally, people would build their schedule around when the National Black Arts Festival was happening in the summer," she says. "And they'd come from every corner of this country to participate right here in Atlanta. I would like to see some of that happening again."
This year marks NBAF's 25th anniversary, which should be cause for spectacular fanfare. But so far it's been a season of silence punctuated by the occasional shocking revelation. Executive director Michael Simanga announced his resignation in January, less than a year after being appointed to the position. That turn of events made Simanga the third leader to depart in four years. The Atlanta Daily World reported in March that the organization is more than a half million dollars in debt, a problem that predated Simanga's leadership. His plans to use entrepreneurial models to get the arts "into the marketplace," as he told CL last year, went unfulfilled and his contract wasn't renewed.
Halpern remains undeterred. "Our doors are still open. The board is committed to putting this organization on a track and poising it for success this year and certainly as we head out into next year and the year after that," she says.
NBAF has had fiscal and organizational problems before, and they've been solved before. In 1992, the organization not only wiped out its $300,000 debt, it realized a small surplus, in part by cutting the festival down from 10 to seven days. But recent widespread murmurs about NBAF's declining relevance point to a more troubling question: Do we still need a black arts festival at all?
In a world where the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and visual artists such as Kehinde Wiley and Kara Walker receive the art world's highest accolades regardless of race, it can be hard to remember the very different world in which NBAF was born. In the '80s, some individual African-American artists enjoyed personal career success, but the notion of black cultural achievement in so-called high art still wasn't an obvious idea to many people. Outside of the spotlights of pop music and sports, national debates about African-Americans were dominated by discussions of crack babies and welfare queens. So poignant was the desire to counter those stereotypes that Bill Cosby attempted to shoulder the cultural burden of an entire race by turning his landmark sitcom into a platform for showcasing the sorts of visual art and music promoted as exemplars of upper-middle-class black taste.