Monday, July 26, 2010

National Black Arts Festival's unfinished business

Posted By on Mon, Jul 26, 2010 at 10:47 AM

A Class Ponders the Future, from Carrie Mae Weems Constructing History exhibit at the 2008 NBAF Visual Arts exhibit
  • Carrie Mae Weems
  • "A Class Ponders the Future," from Carrie Mae Weems' Constructing History exhibit at the 2008 NBAF Visual Arts exhibit
It may have been too much to hope that this year’s National Black Arts Festival visual arts calendar would be as meaty as 2008’s. That year, the festival joined SCAD-Atlanta in commissioning a film and a major new body of photographs by internationally renowned photographer Carrie Mae Weems. The people-friendly Artists’ Market held court in the Georgia World Congress Center, and Embrace, the gallery-oriented international fine art fair, occupied all 24,000 square feet of Mason Murer’s Buckhead real estate. Then there was the full complement of satellite exhibitions and events at local galleries, all rushing to capture NBAF tourist eyeballs. A gush of enthusiasm from Weems, then-Executive Director Stephanie Hughley, and festival PR personnel showed that things were good and should only get better.

But as the visual arts events associated with the 2010 festival begin to wind down — the performing arts events wrapped mid-month — it’s become clear that this portion of the festival rose to nowhere near the stature NBAF would claim for itself as “one of the premier national and international celebrations of the art, music and culture of people of African descent.”

Unlike past years, NBAF 2010 had no major signature visual arts event to rally around. No new major commissions emerged. Both Embrace and the Artists’ Market were absent entirely. Even the roster of independently produced exhibitions at area galleries felt half-hearted, lacking the depth of the 2008 schedule.

As Atlanta’s highest profile multidiscipline citywide arts event, NBAF takes on responsibilities to art audiences and artists whether it wants them or not. If for no other reason than sheer size, the entire region looks to the festival to push forward the highest and best artistic achievements from the African diaspora and to bring attention to Atlanta’s art community.

NBAF has gone a long way in meeting its mission to the performing arts over the years, bringing in international music and dance talent such as Wynton Marsalis and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. This undoubtedly has been a direct result of NBAF’s leadership, which historically has been drawn from the ranks of performing artists and those with deep commitments to the performing arts.

Recognizing that imbalance, the organization began in 2006 to work toward creating a major art fair so that its visual arts programming could flex similar muscles. Like Dak’art, a Senegal-based biennial of African contemporary art, NBAF was to be a serious art fair attracting major artists from the international art world. That started to happen that year with Embrace and a robust set of satellite events such as “Fabricated Harmony,” the collaboration between L.A.-based artist Pat Ward Williams and South African artist Sue Williamson at Wertz Contemporary. After 2008, the organization scaled back dramatically because of the economy and put its priorities elsewhere. But the need for a world-class event still remained in the art world at large.

A few noteworthy exhibitions featuring African-American artists did take up the NBAF banner this summer, including Sheila Pree Bright at Sandler Hudson Gallery, Chakaia Booker at SCAD-Atlanta, Louis Delsarte at Hammonds House, and Demetrius Oliver at Hagedorn Gallery. But this loose collection of shows, each produced by its respective institution and independently of the others, didn’t add up to a program. Without a strong central vision from NBAF, this July felt like any other summer month in the Atlanta art world.

NBAF CEO and Executive Producer Neil Barclay has a daunting task before him. The former president and CEO of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh was appointed to NBAF in 2009 and brings an impressive resume, but he must back it up with the focused vision, staff, and resources that were beginning to take shape just a few years ago. Barclay’s plan to initiate a separate visual arts program at its own time of the year with its own articulated agenda may be a step in the right direction.

NBAF is just not a local affair. It’s an international cultural trust with the potential to be a uniquely Atlantan contribution to global visual arts culture. Artists from as far away as Brazil, France and South Africa already look to the festival as a gauge of what’s exciting in African diasporic culture. If NBAF fails to deliver for visual art, it will be a missed opportunity for us all.

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