We've seen all this before. In fact, that's the point.
Carrie Mae Weems' upcoming exhibition at SCAD-Atlanta's ACA Gallery consists of dozens of black-and-white photos and a video that recreate pivotal moments in history. The re-enactments in Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment are self-consciously assembled scenes, and there's a heavy emphasis on the familiar events of the '60s and '70s: the Kent State shootings; the assassinations of King, JFK and Medgar Evers; the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner on the streets of Saigon during the Tet Offensive.
Most of the photographs were shot in a studio setting, but Weems made no attempt to hide the framework. In the final images, lights, dolly tracks and other filmmaking accoutrements are fully visible.
The Constructing History photographs make clear what is covertly true about all art – none exists in a vacuum. Resources and a support network determine what, where, when and how something gets seen, as well as who sees it. For African-American artists such as Brooklyn-based Weems, the question becomes even more critical: What's the system that helps the world see black art?
The National Black Arts Festival, Atlanta's annual July juggernaut of musical, literary, theatrical and visual arts, commissioned Constructing History in cooperation with SCAD. Weems taught last winter at SCAD, where she developed and executed the project in conjunction with her students and other Atlantans. In fact, anyone familiar with the local art scene will recognize cameos by, among others, Dr. Richard Long, Bill Bounds and the High Museum's Michael D. Harris. On the festival's 20th anniversary, organizers are counting on Weems' project to help remake its image in the visual arts.
A small regiment of assistants mill around the gallery adjusting lights, gathering supplies and moving furniture. They disappear and reappear quickly and quietly. The lights haven't been focused, and there are still a few glitches to fix in the video, but the work ahead doesn't faze Weems. She'd rather talk about her role in this year's festival. She views herself as more than just the NBAF's featured exhibiting artist this year – she's also a social activist for art.
"Being engaged in art is more than just making it," Weems says. "We need to engage the work as writers, as art historians. How does the general public come to know art by African Americans?"
Weems insists that passing on knowledge about African-American art falls upon an army of librarians, writers, students, journalists and educators who are in a position to inform. "Ultimately you don't know about the work unless there's a system around the work."
When the NBAF launched in 1988, its signature visual arts event was the Artists' Market at Greenbriar Mall, which was organized then and now by textile artist K. Joy Peters. In those early years, the visual arts received as much attention as dance, music and theater.
But the festival's commitment to its visual arts production failed to keep pace with the tremendous resources devoted to its performing arts programming. The disparity was rooted in the festival's leadership, says Leatrice Ellzy, manager of artistic programming and festival production. "It has a lot to do with the person who sits in my chair and the person that sits in [executive producer] Stephanie Hughley's seat," Ellzy says, "and how engaged they are in visual art."
Equally challenging are visual art's unforgiving economics, which bear little resemblance to those surrounding the festival's other programming areas. "I can put someone in the civic center, and I can sell tickets, which is then going to generate revenue," Ellzy says. "It's going to help us replace what we spent, or better yet we can make a profit. That's not the same with the visual arts program. So you get stuck in the middle."
Even before she was hired in 2005, Ellzy was advocating for the organization to return to its visual arts focus. Over the last three years, the festival has added major visual arts programming while it continued to hold the Artists' Market. 2006 saw the kickoff of Embrace, a fine art fair held at Mason Murer Fine Art, and the return of major commissioned works by artists such as South African Sue Williamson and Atlantan Radcliffe Bailey.
Today there's no shortage of satellite visual arts events in Atlanta in July that also wear the mantle of the NBAF while the festival – and its tourist dollars – infuse the city. In most cases, the festival functions not as a producer, but as a silent supporting organization, essentially a brand stamp that cooperating venues borrow to be included in NBAF calendars.
In that sense, the NBAF is a lot like Atlanta Celebrates Photography, which also has the power to dovetail programming at a wide swath of independent, unrelated art organizations with the festival's calendar. NBAF has come to dictate the shape of Atlanta's art scene in July much as Atlanta Celebrates Photography dictates its shape in October.
If the question of how much visual arts programming to include has been cause for re-evaluation at NBAF, the question of who the audiences are and what art best reaches them has likewise been a source of internal scrutiny.
The Artists' Market was designed from its inception as a direct link between artists and audiences. It hasn't wavered from that mission in 20 years. The market moves to the Georgia World Congress Center this year, but it still has strict guidelines on who may participate and who may not – the fair is for artists only. No galleries, no dealers. And because its function is partly educational, the festival insists that artists staff their own booths so that as patrons have questions, an authoritative answer is never far away.
The formula makes the market democratic to its very DNA. Unlike many other NBAF programs, which rely on star power to draw crowds, the market is designed to make art approachable rather than mysterious.
"People are more inclined to go to a mall than a museum," says Peters, referring to the market's origins at Greenbriar Mall. "When you bring the art to where the people are, more people get to see works of art, get to meet the artists, and then maybe they're more inclined to go to galleries and museums."
The Artists' Market was established at a time when far fewer African-American artists were involved in the mainstream gallery system than is the case today. The market attracts an eclectic mix of painters, textile artists, furniture makers, and other craftspeople, including ballplayer-turned-artist George Nock, who's one of four artists from the original 1988 market still exhibiting today.
Ironically, that approach did leave one group out – the part of the population that is involved in the mainstream gallery system. Galleries representing artists selling at the highest end of the market, and the collectors seeking them out, were never part of the Artists' Market's mission. Mounting pressure on the festival to meet the needs of those collectors, some of whom were spending six figures and more on art, led to the birth of Embrace, an additional visual arts event now in its third year.
Produced in concert with NBAF by Mason Murer Fine Art, Embrace more closely resembles the international art fairs of Basel and New York that serve as marquee events for high-end galleries. Embrace director Mark Karelson makes no secret of his ambition that the show become another of the world's premiere boutique art fairs, to which the "best galleries bring their best work."
In the next breath, however, Karelson acknowledges that those are high hopes. The contemporary art world is notoriously status-conscious and herdlike. Galleries such as Art 70th in New York have been on hand at Embrace to represent an older generation of blue-chip artists such as Romare Bearden and Lois Mailou Jones. But other galleries such as New York's Sikkema Jenkins & Co. or Jack Shainman Gallery, which represent an entire cadre of young, critically lauded black art stars, have so far stayed away from the fair.
Ellzy and Hughley hope Carrie Mae Weems' work spills over into bolstering the festival's visual arts profile, not only for the programming of commissioned works, but also for the Artists' Market, Embrace and other, smaller events. In addition to Constructing History, Weems has been retained to help the festival continue to refocus its visual arts priorities. Over the next few years she'll curate a new program called "Four by Four," which will comprise four major artist-initiated, commissioned works, of which Weems' is the first. Kerry James Marshall, a Chicago-based conceptual artist best known for explosive treatments of class and race issues, is on deck for next year, Weems says.
As NBAF continues to rev up its visual arts profile, it does so in an art world considerably more complex than the one it was born into 20 years ago. The festival's various visual arts programs reflect that complexity. If it's been accused in the past of neglecting the more cutting-edge strains of contemporary art, it's also avoided the rest of the art world's slavish devotion to youth, novelty and chasing the latest art-world microtrend.
Unlike most contemporary art spectacles in the broader (read: whiter) art world, NBAF has a sense of history, a sense of having come from somewhere before it moves forward. And that's a lesson the rest of the art world would do well to take to heart.