Q&A with National Black Arts Festival CEO

Neil L. Barclay: 'I'm a real systems guy'

“A total blessing.”

That’s how Neil L. Barclay describes last summer’s abbreviated version of the annual National Black Arts Festival.

No, the extreme Georgia heat hasn’t gotten to the Atlanta-based NBAF’s first-year CEO and executive producer; he’s not happy that the economic meltdown forced everyone from homeowners to institutions like his to make major financial sacrifices.

But having to halve the festival’s usual 10-day schedule last year and anchor it at the Woodruff Arts Center — as opposed to holding events all over the city — helped organizers decide on priorities going forward.

Barclay, 55, was hired to replace longtime NBAF executive producer Stephanie Hughley shortly before he attended the 2009 festival as a very interested observer. He previously led the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh, including overseeing the design and construction of its $39.5 million signature building.

The 22nd National Black Arts Festival, which runs Wednesday through Sunday, faces many of the same challenges — bad economy, aging audience — as other cultural events. Yet Barclay had reason to seem pragmatically upbeat during a recent interview in the NBAF offices near the Fox Theatre: an annual budget of $2.9 million (“historically it’s been around $2.2 million to $2.3 million, so we’re up a little bit”); the festival’s return to Centennial Olympic Park for the next three years, and an influx of younger blood via an advisory board of people in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

Here is an edited transcript of his conversation with the AJC:

Q: What was your Year One approach to the job?

A: To first of all do no harm to what’s been done in the past. You have kind of this jewel that you’ve been asked to shepherd, so I have really spent this first year trying to understand the inner workings of the festival: how it works, how it’s worked in the past [and] thinking about ways of trying to institutionalize and standardize systems. I’m a real systems guy.

Q: Hmmm — where does that fit in with an arts festival?

A: I like to have a process in place for producing a festival like this and I like to have a business model. So I wanted to take a festival that I think has been extremely successful, but hasn’t focused as much on that — to their credit, I think they focused on the art — and look at how it might be strengthened from a business standpoint.

Q: Well, it’s already easier to find out much more about it online. Was that something else you focused on this year?

A: I felt the branding of the festival was a little old. We got a great present in that regard in that the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation decided to give the festival a grant over four years to redo its Web site and online presence, to create blogs and online content for people that are visiting the festival or not. The idea being that we would touch even more people around the globe with this kind of virtual NBAF.

Q: Offline, on the ground, how will festival-goers see tangible results of the year’s work?

A: We’ve restructured the programming. One of the things that I noticed, frankly, is that it really was an embarrassment of riches. If you looked at the festival schedule you were saying [sighs heavily] “I want to go see that film, but it’s at the same time as the dance performance which I also want to see.” So the consumer really had this quandary of trying to figure out how to navigate the festival.

We now have a festival pass that will allow you to see all the major events of the festival. And [we] put together a schedule where, if there is a conflict between two things that we think are very seminal or important. we would repeat them. For example, Philadanco, the Philadelphia dance company, is the only thing that repeats. It’s because it’s actually being performed against what we consider another major event [Thursday night’s “Brazil Fest Concert”]. I think that’s one of the things that the public will see and go, “Oh, wow, I can actually come and do everything.”

Q: Did last year’s smaller festival help clarify this issue for you?

A: Both having it at the Woodruff and having it [run for] five days really revealed some interesting things to me from a systems standpoint. And from a public standpoint. The footprint of the festival is too big for the Woodruff, primarily because of the vendors market. We actually wound up turning away vendors. [The five days] worked well from a financial standpoint. We ended up with an operating surplus last year, for example, during a very tough economy. So it really became my task to figure out: Is there a five-day footprint where we wouldn’t necessarily be competing against ourselves?

Q: So are you ready to say now that the festival will be just five days in the future?

A: Almost, actually. We have some changes that will probably be announced as early as this summer ... about the restructuring that we are undertaking. What we decided to do is move some of the more successful components of the festival into their own time frames. So, for example, we will have a project that will be focused on the visual arts that will happen at a different time of the year. We will have one that focuses on film ... and one that focuses on performing arts. Whether or not those will occur every year, we don’t know yet.

We’re optimistic that we will have programs in every quarter of the year, very visible projects like the summer festival, in every quarter. Whether that gets done next year or by 2012 or 2013 is what remains to be seen. We’re going to be very methodical about rolling that out to make sure we have the resources behind it to sustain it at whatever schedule we arrive at.

Q: This year’s “Brazil Fest” programming is generating lots of buzz. How did Brazil wind up in an Atlanta festival?

A: The Brazilian Consulate [in Atlanta] has been sponsoring a smaller Brazil Fest. We just began to talk to them and say, “Is this something we could do together? Is it something we could help you with?” It’s in a part of the world that we’re interested in and we just developed what is now a long-term collaboration with them. It’s a five-year project with the Brazilian Consulate to really figure out ways to engage that particular community.

The long-term relationship will not just occur here in Atlanta, it will happen in Brazil as well. We’ll be able to help them with some of the things they’re interested in doing in their own country.

Q: The next World Cup is in Brazil, as well as the 2016 Summer Olympics. Could NBAF be involved in those in some way?

A: That’s certainly the idea. You know, we can’t speak for them, but we would love that. That’s why we keep meeting with them and talking with them.

Q: From Tyler Perry and Usher to Kenny Leon and hip-hop’s who’s who, Atlanta is popular culture central. Any thought of trying to get more of that into upcoming festivals?

A: Popular culture is culture. We don’t have a kind of high art/low art hierarchy to what we do. It’s about the mix, frankly, and about how we put it together in any given season. I think that what you’ll see in our programming moving forward is programs that highlight the kind of artfulness of popular culture.

For example, [Friday’s] Curtis Mayfield evening. He’s certainly a pop culture icon, but a lot of people, I don’t think, understand or appreciate his role in the civil rights movement, his role as a poet — how that music influenced a whole generation of people’s thoughts and ideas. I think that you’ll see in the popular culture programming that we do a real attempt to talk about and contextualize why that work is really important for us to understand.

Even in hip-hop, which has interesting roots in terms of how it comes out of a poetry tradition, how it’s been monetized and commercialized and how it’s being used now. Tracking some of that is a project that we’re very interested in, particularly for this community that has so many prominent hip-hop artists in it.


Event preview

National Black Arts Festival

Wednesday-Sunday, July 14-18

All events in Centennial Olympic Park are free; $25-$75 other events; $160 all-access festival pass.

Tickets, locations, schedule and event information: 404-733-5000, www.nbaf.org