The National Black Arts Festival unveiled its new strategic vision last week with an aim to reinvigorate its mission and return to its former prominence.
The nation's longest running arts festival with a mission to present art from the African diaspora across the five disciplines of theater, film, visual art, dance, and music, NBAF entered its 25th year in 2013 mired in debt and and a lost sense of direction. After facing fiscal and organizational problems for years, as well as underlying questions regarding the festival's declining relevance, the festival has repositioned itself to "reintroduce Atlanta as the epicenter of black art," according to NBAF Board Chair Sonya Halpern.
Instead of focusing on a search to replace Michael Simanga, who became the third NBAF executive director to vacate the position in four years when he departed in January 2013, the board sought outside consultation. For the past year, NBAF has contracted with the Devos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center for interim executive and arts management consulting.
"At NBAF, we know our place. We are a commissioner and presenter, not a producer," Halpern said regarding the festival's new focus on commissioning new works from emerging and established artists. By 2017, one-third of its budget will go toward commissioning such works, with the other two-thirds dedicated to administrative and operational costs.
Mayor Kasim Reed kicked off last week's press conference by reiterating the city of Atlanta's support for NBAF. "Together, we have been working tirelessly to put the National Black Arts Festival back on the map," he said before presenting an additional $20,000 from the city to NBAF's coffers at Halpern's surprise.
According to Halpern, the festival met its $1.2 million 2013 fundraising goal; reined in its organizational debt by 70 percent; added six new board members who each pledge to contribute at least $25,500 apiece to the organization during their three-year terms; and downsized from its Midtown office digs near the Fox Theatre for a new Castleberry Hill location that will eliminate $1.3 million in financial obligation over the next seven years. (Per the press release, the price of the new annual lease at the Castleberry location is less than two months' rent at the former spot.)
NBAF also reports it ended its scaled-back 2013 season in the black for the first time in recent years, while repairing "a tarnished relationship" with National Endowment of the Arts, which led to a 2014 grant approval.
The restructuring of the annual budget is most apparent in programming changes. Rather than equally spreading its resources across all five disciplines, a new approach will focus on fewer but larger-scale programs focused largely on one area.
The Inaugural Spotlight Series is the main part of that revamping. The series will highlight one discipline per season by tapping a master artist in the field to serve as guest curator/performer. That curator will then select a mentor, peer, and protegee in his/her field to perform in separate NBAF engagements. For 2014, the discipline of focus is music and the selected guest curator is jazz icon Wynton Marsalis, who will perform at Symphony Hall on Fri., July 25. He has tapped Jimmy Heath (mentor), Marcus Roberts (peer), and his younger brother vibraphonist Jason Marsalis (protégé).
While selecting an undisputed jazz ambassador and outspoken traditionalist like Marsalis as its Inaugural Spotlight Series curator may not silence those who've been critical of NBAF's failure to embrace more progressive movements in black art, the board hopes other planned programming will fill that role.
The NBAF NEXT series - a multi-year partnership between NBAF, Atlanta's NEXT and the national network Alternate ROOTS - will highlight emerging, mostly Atlanta-based artists whose work focuses on affecting change. This year's select multi-disciplinarians include visual/performing artist and scholar Fahamu Pecou, whose recent guest-edited edition of Art Papers magazine highlighted intersections between fine art and hip-hop. Other programming aimed at emerging audiences includes a world-premiere performance by spoken word artist Toni Blackman, featuring Atlanta-based beatboxer D.R.E.S. tha BEATnik (Wisdom of the Cypher).
A two-week academic symposium in conjunction with Emory University will bring together a cadre of national scholars to discuss the intersection between cultural studies, religion and philosophy in Black Aesthetics and African Centered Cultural Expressions. Other works include a commissioned praise "dance opera," and a staged reading of a Reconstruction-era gospel/blues musical set in Atlanta. There are also programs and master classes specifically designated for children, teens, and emerging artists.
Another major change comes to its tradition of free programming. Instead of sticking to its longstanding policy that 75 percent of all NBAF programs are free and open to the public, Halpern said the board will continue to trumpet accessibility while "assigning value" to more of its programming. Other specific fundraising strategies include the NBAF Gala, a ticketed event that starts at $500 and includes sponsorship levels as high as $50,000. This year's Sat., July 19 gala performers will include legendary jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, Metropolitan Opera star Harolyn Blackwell and spoken word performer Toni Blackman.
See a full list of announced 2014 season events, prices and locations below. Tickets are currently on sale:
THE INAUGURAL SPOTLIGHT SERIES
This year, Wynton Marsalis serves as NBAF's inaugural Spotlight Series Curator, personally tapping a mentor, a peer, and a protégé to join the summer's program.
The Legend: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis - "Modern Life, Modern Music," Friday, July 25, 8 p.m. at Symphony Hall. Tickets from $45. This spectacular evening, curated specifically for NBAF by Marsalis, features original compositions by members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Marsalis describes the inspiration for the concert thus: "The DNA research is in. We are all descendants of Africa. Let's celebrate the scientific death of tribalism. Modern life affords us the opportunity to choose our tribe by interest instead of genetics. Today, families are formed across the superficial lines of race and nationality. They are more flexible and numerous. The divisive conventions which force us into competing clans who wish to claim superiority over 'others' are giving way to an emphasis on culture and its shared mythic symbols that unify us at the deepest levels of our collective consciousness. Duke Ellington said THE people are my people. Jazz knew that any person is related to all people, long before DNA told us it was so."
The Mentor: The Heath Brothers Quartet with Jeremy Pelt, Saturday, August 23, 8 p.m. at Rialto Center for the Arts Tickets from $25 NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Heath and rising star Jeremy Pelt (trumpet) offer an evening of classics from the American Songbook as well as signature compositions by Heath himself. Marsalis states, "NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Heath, brilliant instrumentalist, magnificent composer and arranger, is vital at 87 years old - when he walks into a room, jazz history is made."
The Protégé: The Jason Marsalis Quartet, Thursday, September 11, 8 p.m. at Rialto Center for the Arts Tickets from $15 The Jason Marsalis Quartet features Marsalis on vibraphones, Will Goble on bass, David Potter on drums and Austin Johnson on piano. Performing hits from his most recent album, "my younger brother Jason, with perfect pitch and unerring rhythmic sophistication, is a master of the vibes," explains Wynton Marsalis.
The Peer: The Marcus Roberts Trio Celebrates Monk and Trane, Thursday, September 18, 7:30 p.m., Center Stage Theater Tickets from $15 The Marcus Roberts Trio, founded in 1995, is known around the world for its virtuosic style - a style that is strongly rhythmic, melodic, and filled with dynamic contrast. According to Marsalis, "Marcus is like a movement. Years from now, people will look back on all the students and piano players that he influenced and it will become known as the School of Marcus Roberts...He is a genius."
THE 2014 NBAF SEASON ALSO INCLUDES:
Harlem Fine Arts Show, June 26-29 at 200 Peachtree Street Tickets from $10 at http://hfas.org/events/atlanta/ Opening Night Benefit for the National Black Arts Festival, June 26, 6 p.m. Tickets $100 The Harlem Fine Arts Show returns to Atlanta with one of the largest and most prestigious collections of works by emerging and established African-American artists from around the country. Artists from past shows have included Leroy Campbell, Corinthia Peoples, Elizabeth Baez, Woodrow Nash, True African Art and more.
Symposium: Black Aesthetics and African Centered Cultural Expressions: Sacred Systems in the Nexus between Cultural Studies, Religion and Philosophy, July 13-August 1, times vary, at Emory University In partnership with Emory University, NBAF collaborates on a three-week symposium that investigates Black Aesthetics and African Centered Cultural Expressions: Sacred Systems in the Nexus between Cultural Studies, Religion and Philosophy. The symposium will stage a number of high-energy discussions related to the black aesthetic, while broadening and reviving interest in this area of scholarship for future research and intellectual inquiry. The institute will focus on the development of African-based sacred systems in the nexus between cultural studies, religion, and philosophy, and their influence on the arts. https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/institute-blackaesthetics/about/#about
NBAF Gala, Saturday, July 19, 6 p.m., InterContinental Buckhead. Tickets from $500. The NBAF Gala is the official, triumphant season opener and always one of the most elegant, spectacular evenings on Atlanta's performing arts calendar. The 2014 Gala, Higher and Higher, will not disappoint, and will feature a trio of luminaries in a spellbinding line-up: jazz icon Terence Blanchard, Metropolitan Opera superstar Harolyn Blackwell and New York City-based spoken word impresario Toni Blackman. Join Atlanta's finest for cocktails, dinner, silent and live auctions and dancing until midnight amidst the splendor of the Intercontinental Buckhead's Grand Ballroom.
The Brave New Voices Institute, July 21-August 1, Performance August 2, 2 p.m. at National Center for Civil and Human Rights Free admission In partnership with San Francisco's renowned spoken word powerhouse, Youth Speaks, NBAF provides 30 Atlanta-based teens (ages 13-19) with a two-week training intensive in creative writing and spoken word, culminating in an opportunity to perform before a live audience in a "poetry slam" for family, friends, and supporters. Open to Atlanta youth by audition in late June.
Sojourner Washing Society: A musical in gospel & blues, July 24, 7:30 p.m. at Alliance Theatre, Woodruff Arts Center Free admission. As Atlanta becomes Georgia's largest city a few years after the Civil War, it is ready to celebrate itself as the New South. But the town boosters find themselves at odds with a group they call "the Washing Amazons," 3,000 spirited black women who hold the city's dirty laundry and go after a raise in a tale told in gospel and blues. This staged reading is held in partnership with the Alliance Theatre.
NBAF partners with two arts leaders - Atlanta's NEXT and national network Alternate ROOTS - in a multi-year effort inspired by the idea that art has the power to create change. NBAF NEXT seeks to promote emerging artists, with an emphasis on Atlanta-based artists, and elevate artists working at the intersection of creative expression and social justice.
The Salon, Thursday, July 31, 7:30 p.m. at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. Tickets from $15. The Salon is a celebration of rising, Atlanta-based talents in the visual, literary, spoken word and musical arts - those on the cusp of stardom. It features four genre-blending performances: visual/performing artist and scholar Fahamu Pecou; jazz and soul vocalist Brenda Nicole Moorer; playwright and community agitator Michael Molina and Emmy- award winning spoken word artist Jon Goode. This interactive event encourages collaboration between artists and audience to take aim at society's most intractable challenges.
Town Hall, September, date and location TBD.
This September, NBAF, NEXT and ROOTS will partner to host a town hall meeting to explore how artists can work to find solutions to society's most intractable challenges. This town hall invites attendees to discuss the needs and status of social justice-oriented artists in Atlanta and the American South.
Wisdom of the Cypher by Toni Blackman with D.R.E.S. tha BEATnik, Saturday, August 2, 8 p.m. and Sunday, August 3, 2:30 p.m. at The Loft at Center Stage. Tickets from $10. Wisdom of the Cypher, a world premiere by Hip Hop impresario Toni Blackman, is a high- energy montage of lyrical verses and spoken word that open upon multiple future pathways and possibilities for Hip Hop - the form and the community. Wisdom of the Cypher travels along the path that not only defines the essence of Hip Hop, but clarifies its soul purpose for existence. Joined by Atlanta-based beatboxer D.R.E.S. tha BEATnik, C. Hankins as the musical conductor and a universe of digital projections, this work in spoken word, images and music unfolds upon a potential future for this sacred form.
A Celebration of Music on Film: A Film Festival in Partnership with New York City's African Diaspora International Film Festival, Saturday, August 16, beginning at 11 a.m. in The Rich Auditorium at Woodruff Arts Center Tickets $8 (Seniors $6) for one film, $42 (Seniors $30) for full-day pass to seven films
Films exploring the influence of the African Diaspora on four continents include: "Hands of God," Dir. Delia Ackerman, Peru; "Susana Baca: Memoria Viva," Dir. Mark Dixon, Peru/Belgium; "Return to Gorée," Dir. Dir. Pierre-Yves Borgeaud, Senegal/Switzerland/Luxembourg; "The Story of Lovers Rock," Dir. Menelik Shabazz, United Kingdom; "Tango Negro: The African Roots of Tango," Dir. Dom Pedro, France; "Josephine Backer, Black Diva in a White Man's World," Dir. Annette von Wangenheim, Germany and "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues," Dir. Christine Dall, USA/Canada.
NBAF Global Featuring Third World and Maxi Priest, Sunday, August 17, 6 p.m. at The Tabernacle. Tickets from $15, VIP from $25 NBAF Global is a new annual celebration of one region of the African Diaspora. This year, NBAF stages an all-out celebration of reggae music and culture in a spectacular concert featuring Jamaican superpower Third World and British-Jamaican megastar Maxi Priest, on tour to promote his new release, Easy to Love. Dance floor and VIP Seating available.
Legends Celebration, Saturday, September 6, 8 p.m. at Rialto Center for the Arts Tickets from $25. 5 Legends. 5 Awards. One spectacular evening.
A Festival favorite and one of the most sought-after tickets on the NBAF calendar, the Legends Celebration pays tribute to luminaries in dance, theater, film, music, and visual arts. Received in past years by none other than Judith Jamison, Maya Angelou, Harry Belafonte, Cicely Tyson, Katherine Dunham, Amiri Baraka, Gladys Knight, Faith Ringgold and Max Roach. This year's event honors five legendary artists, one in each field, through tribute performances and presentations. Spotlight Series curator Wynton Marsalis is the 2014 Music Legend and will be joined by four other creative luminaries - whom will be announced at the NBAF Gala on July 19.
Doxology Ring Shout: A Praise Dance for the Doxy, Saturday, September 13, 8 p.m. and Sunday, September 14, 3 p.m. at Baldwin Burroughs Theatre at Spelman College. Tickets from $15. ($5 Student).
An NBAF commission and world premiere in partnership with Spelman College, Doxology draws back the curtain on the ecstatic, transcendent ring shout tradition through a rich blend of dance, visual imagery and music. Created by legendary choreographer Dianne McIntyre and esteemed playwright Paul Carter Harrison, this "dance opera" explores the history of the ritual in a virtualized performance environment constructed by video artist Phillip Mallory Jones and supported by musician Dwight Andrews.
GAME ON, September 26, 7 p.m. and September 27, 2 p.m., venue: TBD. Tickets from $5.
This theater piece for young audiences (ages 7 and up) follows its hero, a young girl who ends up inside a video game and learns that virtual reality is no match for real life. GAME ON is the Atlanta premiere of a new hip-hop theater work created by middle school students and performed by adult artists, breakdancers and five graduates of the Brave New Voices Institute. This performance is co-commissioned by the Hip Hop Theater Festival, the National Black Arts Festival and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
First Glance National Competition for High School-age artists in Dance, Music, Spoken Word (Theater) and Visual Art, Saturday, September 27, venue: TBD. Free admission, open to the public.
Now in its fourth year, this NBAF favorite is a national competition for youth artists in four NBAF disciplines. Winners - decided by jury and popular vote - receive cash prizes and professional development. Open to Atlanta and national youth by online submission, First Glance comprises a national call for submissions, a celebrity jury panel, prize packages for winners and a public awards show. Title support for this event is provided by Turner Broadcasting, Inc. through the Turner Voices Initiative.
The Generations Project, Master Classes, multiple dates and venues Pre-professional artists ages 18 and up can audition to attend master classes with headliners from this year's festival including Metropolitan Opera Soprano Harolyn Blackwell, Spotlight Series Percussionist Jason Marsalis, Reggae superstars Third World, Hip Hop master Toni Blackman, Legendary Choreographer Dianne McIntyre and more. Interested artists need to submit a short video or audio recording, your resume, picture, and a paragraph stating interest to GenProject@nbaf.org to be considered for one of these once-in-a-lifetime training opportunities!
For more information, visit NBAF.org.
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