National Black Arts Festival changes, survives

In the 26 seasons since it began presenting music, dance, film, theater and visual arts of the African diaspora in 1988, the National Black Arts Festival has gone through good times and bad, shrinking and expanding with each incarnation.

Last year, when marketing executive Sonya Halpern took the reins, the festival was in a dangerous spot. Debt had ballooned and the festival had just lost its third executive director in four years. The budget was cut in half and six staff members were laid off.

This year Halpern, the board chairwoman, is running a fiscally sound, smaller program.

The debt has shrunk from almost $500,000 a few years ago to $80,000. The festival is seeking guidance from the Kennedy Center for the Arts, and, with their input, created a five-year plan (of which this is the first year).

There are fewer events and more of them are ticketed. Gone are the days when 75 percent of the festival was free.

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“Funding has changed,” Halpern said in a recent interview. “To be able to do what we want to do costs money.”

On the other hand, the quality of events is high, including a performance by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis Friday at Symphony Hall. Along with such mainstream artists as Marsalis, the NBAF is presenting edgy new work, such as Thursday’s free theatrical reading at the Alliance Theatre of “Sojourner Washing Society,” a blues musical set during the Civil War.

Halpern spoke recently about the new direction of the festival.

On the increased emphasis on national acts:

“We are the National Black Arts Festival; we are certainly putting the ‘national’ back in.”

On whether the decrease in free events will discourage the casual attendee:

“I don’t worry about that; there are many opportunities to engage people, to still be able to invite them in to see what we’re doing.”

On the influence of the Kennedy Center’s DeVos Arts Management Institute:

“They would say they are behind the scenes doing some plumbing work. They have been consulting with the board over the course of the last year as we’ve been thinking about turning the organization around. … So much of what you see, and what’s on schedule, is driven out of that new vision.”

On the search for a new executive director, a position that has been open for a year:

“We’ve been incredibly pleased with the applications that have come forward. We expect to be able to announce our new executive director by the end of this season.”

On the new works commissioned by the festival, including “Doxology Ring Shout,” a “dance opera” with choreography by Dianne McIntyre and music by Dwight Andrews, to be performed Sept. 13-14 at Spelman College; and “Game On!” a hip-hop theater piece for young audiences, to be performed Sept. 26-27 at Morehouse College:

“It’s not just about being financially sound and administratively sound, but also on the artistic side: What do we want to be contributing?”

On the group’s overarching purpose:

“Our mission is to continue to promote the great work that happens to be coming out of the folks of the African diaspora.”

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