Cover Story - Do black arts festivals have a future?

Tired programming, budget woes, and inconsistent leadership have plagued Atlanta's National Black Arts Festival. Can the once-revered event bounce back?

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.

Four years after "The Cosby Show" premiered, NBAF joined the wave of institutions designed to acknowledge otherwise under-acknowledged art to a mass audience. That wave also included the Hammonds House Museum, an Atlanta institution devoted to exhibiting African-American art, which opened the same year NBAF began. "For decades," reads NBAF's 1988 souvenir program, "Black Americans have dreamed of producing an event that would display the richness of our cultural heritage." The new festival would "make our dream a reality."

In 1988, it was relatively easy to pin down the supposed political agenda of black high art — images and sounds to uplift the race in the eyes of the world. But by the end of the '90s, that agenda had all but collapsed. Curator Thelma Golden made the collapse explicit in her 2001 group exhibition Freestyle at the Studio Museum in Harlem, a leader in contemporary art by emerging and established black artists since 1968. Freestyle unleashed a war of ideologies still raging today by introducing the term "post-black" to describe a rising tide of artwork that was much less interested in an agenda of uplift.

The term post-black has been widely misinterpreted to refer to artwork that refuses to discuss racial concerns. To the contrary, Golden's term referred to art by largely art-school trained artists who usually did think about race. But unlike previous generations that went looking for common denominators and stories shared across the race, Freestyle artists such as Rashid Johnson, Kira Lynn Harris, and Atlanta's Kojo Griffin instead made highly individualistic art that attempted to integrate the dizzying variety of experiences thrust upon all modern people. According to the Freestyle catalog, these artists were "influenced by hip hop, alt rock, new media, suburban angst, urban blight, globalism, and the Internet," making art that was "both post-Basquiat and post-Biggie."

Writer and media pundit Touré's 2011 book Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness? explained the new generational attitude by pointing out that those born after the Civil Rights Movement didn't experience the same massive group trauma as earlier generations, writing, "The fight for equality is not over, but that shift from living amid segregation and civil war to integration and affirmative action ... has led many to a very different perspective." Being removed from the front lines allowed later generations to relate to the Civil Rights era in ways unthinkable from within the Civil Rights generation: irreverently, ironically, and from the point of view that one's race could be served up as just one subject among many.

Similar ideas emerged throughout the 2000s in literature, film, and theater. What Was African American Literature? (2011) author Kenneth W. Warren has even written that African-American literature is a historical form that "has already come to an end." Obviously, African-American people continue to write books. But without the politics forced by Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, the race of an author today provides no reliable clues to a book's content, language, or tone. And a category with no unifying characteristics isn't a category.

NBAF isn't the only African-American arts organization standing at a crossroads as the nature of both art and race undergo rapid change. The International Review of African American Art, for which I'm currently guest editing the upcoming summer issue, is likewise recalculating what does and does not fall into its territory.

Founded in 1976, IRAAA gave voice to art movements such as Africobra and the Black Arts Movement that had mostly already peaked, but were slowly becoming institutionalized in museums and academic programs. The quarterly journal saw itself as part of the human effort to "realize the uniqueness of each culture and the value of its art," as its inaugural issue stated. As long as everyone had some idea about what the uniqueness of black culture was, there was no problem. Thus Elizabeth Catlett's woodcut of Harriet Tubman and a painting of African masks by Loïs Mailou Jones both found a comfortable home in the pages of IRAAA bound by the fact that both artists had the same political agenda. Almost 40 years later, there are increasing numbers of artists whose work has more and more to do with personal idiosyncrasies and less to do with a common, well-defined political cause. It's not at all clear how to thoughtfully turn that into a coherent story about what was once called black art.

The Studio Museum's recent exhibition Fore (November 2012-March 2013) provided even less of a unifying vision than Freestyle. In the exhibition catalog, Fore's curators pose a question: "So what happens to black after post-black?" The question remains unanswered in the catalog, but Fore's collected works, ranging wildly in subject, aesthetics, medium, and scale, seemed to abandon entirely the notion that anything at all unifies the work of young black artists, or indeed that it has anything to say about blackness at all.

New websites such as Black Art in America and Black Contemporary Art provide different answers to the same questions. While Black Contemporary Art highlights edgier work more likely to be assimilated into mainstream art institutions, Black Art in America has a more populist approach. "Because Black Art in America is open to varied types of artists at various stages in their development," says founder Najee Dorsey, "it is a place where visitors can find emerging talent that may not necessarily be on other art sites. You could say we represent the 99 percent of artists of color."

The tides of ambiguity about new forms of black art and artists might explain why NBAF's vision feels wed to the '80s. That decade was perhaps the last time it was possible to know for sure what was and was not black art without courting a crippling barrage of caveats and exceptions. It would explain why so many of the festival's leading spokespeople and feature acts saw their most productive years between 1965 and 1980. It also explains why NBAF's bigger challenge for the future is not whether it can close an immediate budget shortfall, but how it transitions its vision of what black art means in a new century. And for that, NBAF needs more showcases highlighting work from the present and future and fewer misty-eyed reminiscences of the past.

NBAF may be taking steps toward precisely that effort. Although this year's festival won't be the "dynamic" blowout Simanga predicted almost a year ago, one of the few events planned is a two-day, public forum titled, "A Question of Relevance." That event, scheduled for September, is described as a "discussion regarding the current and future relevance of Black Culture in the 21st century to help us all understand how to preserve and sustain these institutions." If the difficult questions implied by the title are addressed head-on, NBAF will certainly end up more attuned to how it needs to change.

In its literature, NBAF frequently touts its intentions to expose young people to the arts. But the organization's arrow of influence may be pointing in the wrong direction. Flexible organizations realize that they need exposure to young ideas every bit as much as the young need exposure to an existing legacy. Like every generation, the young people are already making work that reflects their experiences of the world. NBAF must take seriously the messy, unresolved, sometimes frightening cultural production of young artists not simply as a sideshow, but as the center of what any future festival might look like. The next generations are more than simply a target audience; they are the engines that will power the future.

There's a lot at stake in the survival of NBAF and other black art organizations. Bernard Lumpkin, a major collector of African-American art as well as a member of the Studio Museum's Acquisition Committee, describes a "mutual obligation:" "Such organizations are reaching out to a different community and a different community is reaching out to them," says Lumpkin. "For better or for worse, these people aren't going to other institutions. And if they do go elsewhere, there's a good chance that they won't see the sorts of stories about their own lives that they would get at the Studio Museum."

Black art organizations still preserve and tell stories that no other organizations do. The story of America is incomplete without them. But those organizations have a future only if their visions continue to change with the times.

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