Economy forces creators to 're-imagine' Black Arts Festival

When officials at the National Black Arts Festival were thinking about how to retool and refocus the cultural institution, they planned on taking a leisurely, deliberate stroll.

Then the economy tanked.

“We already knew we were going to have to shift in how we do business. The economy made us do it sooner than later,” said Leatrice Ellzy, NBAF’s director of artistic programming. “We have been hit by the financial crisis that has taken over the world.”

When the NBAF opens Wednesday in Atlanta, it will be dramatically different than what most festival-goers are used to.

For starters, the festival has gone from 10 to five days. Instead of venues scattered throughout the city, the festival will be centrally located on the campus of Woodruff Arts Center. Sponsorship levels have dropped, Ellzy’s programming budget has been sliced and her full-time staff has gone from 16 to 10.

The long-standing dance component, which in the past has brought in Alvin Ailey and Katherine Dunham, has been cut. Also absent are big names, like last year’s headliner Gladys Knight.

Neil Barclay, NBAF’s incoming executive producer and CEO, said the moves are proactive to counter a down economy and changing arts landscape.

“Downsizing represents something that has been duplicated by hundreds of arts organizations around the country,” he said.

Last year’s festival was the organization’s biggest, with a $1.5 million programming budget aimed at celebrating 20 years of success. This year’s festival, budgeted at $345,000 is the most “condensed.”

“For 20 years, we were doing the same kind of thing,” said founder and former NBAF executive producer Stephanie Hughley. “Now, we have to look at ourselves differently in a global world. Groups that aren’t afraid of change, will not just survive but thrive. Groups who are afraid to change will not survive at all.”

Ellzy, who came to the NBAF in 2005 after years of consulting for them, said last year’s 20th anniversary marked a time to end one chapter and begin a new one.“You won’t see another 10-day festival in a while,” Ellzy said. “We are creating a new model.”

Although the NBAF has been cut to five days, it will still be packed with events, including a discussion led by filmmaker Robert Townsend.

From July 31 until Aug. 2, 15th Street will be shut down for free concerts and the International Marketplace, where clothing, jewelry and art will be on sale and display. Salons will feature writers teaching their craft.

A highlight of the festival will be the Legend Celebration honoring Nina Simone by her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly, Dianne Reeves, Lizz Wright and Joi. The most expensive ticket for the event is $55.

“People can afford to come and enrich themselves. We want to be responsible with our resources and dollars,” Ellzy said.

One way to control dollars has been to cut the salaries of the artists, who are getting paid about 20 percent less than last year.

“I have artists saying, ‘I’ll do a gimme,’ ” Ellzy said. “But we are not in the business of not paying artists. We are still paying them.”

Ellzy said only two artists have declined based on the pay.

What is happening in Atlanta is part of a national trend. As the recession lingers, the arts community has also suffered. Arts companies are going under, laying off staff and cutting expenses as donations have dwindled.

“We all have to re-imagine what it is going to take to survive given the economic pressures on our society,” Barclay said. “Arts and culture always take a back seat. We have to make a case as to why cultural activities are critical to a great city like Atlanta.”

While some may be alarmed at the NBAF’s dramatic programming scale back, it is to be expected in this economy, said Flora Maria Garcia, CEO and executive director of the Metro Atlanta Arts and Culture Coalition, an arts public policy and advocacy group.

In a survey released in June by the National Endowment for the Arts, about 35 percent of American adults attended an art museum or event in 2008, down from 40 percent in 2002. The survey suggests that because of the economy, festivals and the performing arts saw double digit declines in attendance.

“There is not one single arts organization I know that hasn’t felt the pinch and scaled back,” said Garcia, a longtime arts administrator who has also worked in Texas and the Midwest. “They’ve all been hit so hard with funding cuts on all levels including individual, corporate, foundation as well as public giving. It’s not a surprise to me that NBAF is scaling back. We’re all on life support, but nobody’s pulled the plug yet.”

The NBAF still has an impressive list of sponsors, including Delta, Coca-Cola, UPS, Turner, AT&T and Fulton County, although Wal-Mart and Ing left.

“Some of the levels have dropped and we knew going into it that this was going to happen,” Ellzy said. “We need to re-define for funders what the values are.”

Barclay comes to the NBAF with a reputation for bringing in big dollars. As the head of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh, he oversaw the construction of a $39.5 million headquarters, helped raise more than $34.5 million for a capital campaign, and increased its annual budget to $2.5 million.

“The model that I used was to try to get people excited about the vision and possibilities,” said Barclay, 54.

“I want [the NBAF] to be the preeminent festival of its kind on the planet. I am coming here to make sure that when people think of black culture, they think they have to come to Atlanta.”

Recently, the NBAF was awarded a $1 million grant by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to develop major technology initiatives to help grow their audiences and resources.

Hughley, who is serving as a consultant for this year’s festival, said the focus of the grant is a step in the right direction.

“There is a need for these types of institutions. This is the only thing like it in the world,” Hughley said. “I am as excited for the National Black Arts Festival as I was when we first created it.”

Staff writer Rosalind Bentley contributed to this report

National Black Arts Festival: A Timeline

1987 – The National Black Arts Festival is incorporated through a Fulton County Arts Council initiative. Stephanie Hughley is named artistic director.

1988 – The NBAF holds its first festival featuring an Elizabeth Catlett exhibit, talks by Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka, and an evening with Nancy Wilson and the Count Basie Band.

1996 – NBAF's Theatre program includes, "Having Our Say," "Zora Neale Hurston," "The Confessions of Stepin Fetchit," and "A Huey P. Newton Story."

1998 – Celebrates 10 years with Charles Dutton, August Wilson, Ntozake Shange, Wole Soyinka, Ruby Dee and Abbey Lincoln.

2000 - NBAF begins collaboration with the Pan African Film Festival.

2003 – NBAF sends 20 middle school students and 20 teachers to Nicaragua to study the "African Presence in the Americas."

2008 – NBAF celebrates its 20th anniversary with Cornel West, Wynton Marsalis, Alice Walker and a dance tribute to Judith Jamison. Theatre productions include "Oprah Winfrey presents The Color Purple." NBAF moves to new Midtown office space, donated by AT&T.

2009 - The festival to go from 10 days to five. Neil Barclay, becomes the new executive producer and CEO.