Watch the National Black Arts Festival Blossom

By Washington, Stan | American Visions, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Watch the National Black Arts Festival Blossom


Washington, Stan, American Visions


The idea was never meant to be modest. from the beginning, the National Black Arts Festival was conceived as big ... bold ... eclectic ... energetic ... and dedicated to quality.

Those who have regularly attended the biennial National Black Arts Festival (NBAF) in Atlanta will notice some major changes in this year's celebration, which will run from July 28 to August 6. The first NBAF of the new millennium will not be as enormous as its predecessors, and it will be concentrated mostly in two areas of the city. There will be fewer free events, which in years past competed with those that charged admission and deprived the festival of precious revenue--the lifeblood of any nonprofit arts organization. The NBAF, being presented for the sixth time in 12 years, is also moving toward becoming a year-round arts institute that provides arts education programs and puts on a festival, as opposed to an organization whose only purpose is to put on a 10-day festival every other year.

Stephanie S. Hughley is the NBAF's new executive producer. She asserts that the festival must scale back its wide offerings of theater, dance, music, poetry and art if it is to survive. This is Hughley's second tour of the festival. She served as its founding artistic director from 1987 to 1992, before leaving to become the theater and dance producer of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games Cultural Olympiad. After the Olympics, she accepted the position of vice president of programming at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, in Newark.

When the NBAF board of directors decided that it needed someone to take it to the next level, the call went out to Hughley to come home. Hughley has vast experience as both an artist (a dancer in several companies) and an arts administrator. Returning to her former residence wouldn't be difficult for her; facing the daunting task of reducing a substantial debt and putting on a festival--all in one year--might.

"There were members on the board who felt strongly that, because of my history with the festival and the experiences that I've had since I left the festival, I might be the right person to help in this transition," Hughley says. "That transition has always been talked about, but I think that each time that you do a festival, you are so consumed doing the festival that it is hard to think about coming out of the festival and what could happen after that."

The NBAF has been so huge and encompassing that it was not uncommon for there to be six or more major events going on at once. Giddy festivalgoers would find themselves having to choose among the Artists Market, the African Marketplace, an author's reading and signing, a film screening, two or three theater productions, a couple of musical concerts, a dance performance, and a midnight jazz jam session, all in one day. Then they'd have to make the same choices again the next day and the next day. Festival attendees would leave happily--and understandably--exhausted.

Since the first festival, in 1988, more than 6,000 artists from around the world have exposed their works to more than 9 million people. The NBAF has presented a who's who of African-American artists, such as Maya Angelou, August Wilson, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Odetta, Wynton Marsalis, Pearl Cleage, Philadanco, Tito Puente, Cassandra Wilson, and Avery Brooks. …

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