Case Model for Reviving a Struggling Arts Organization

(With A Strong Cautionary Note)

Sonya Halpern, NBAF board chair. Photo: Robin Marshall via Arts ATLSometimes a business professional, not an arts professional, can be the best “fixer” to turn around a struggling arts organization.  Such is the case with Sonya Halpern, the new board chair of the National Black Arts Festival (NBAF) in Atlanta.   Once a major cultural venue, the NBAF, in recent years, has been waning.  Some saw the decline coming when the biennial summer festival began to be held once a year.  Every other year seemed to be the right pacing to maintain the summer festival’s attraction as an extraordinary, special event. However, there were other, more specific factors in the NBAF’s decline, some relating to the visual arts.

“When the NBAF launched in 1988, its signature visual arts event was the Artists' Market at Greenbriar Mall, which was organized then and now by textile artist K. Joy Peters. In those early years, the visual arts received as much attention as dance, music and theater,” wrote Cinque Hicks in a 2008 article in the Creative Loafing blog. “But the festival's commitment to its visual arts production failed to keep pace with the tremendous resources devoted to its performing arts programming.”

In 2006-2008, the main locus of NBAF visual arts was Mason Murer Fine Arts, a gallery in Atlanta’s Buckhead district which presented a more selective offering of artwork called Embrace: The Fine Art Fair of the National Black Arts Festival. The NBAF exhibitor's role now has been assumed by The Harlem Fine Arts Show which imports a show to Atlanta. The NBFA’s announcement for the 2014 exhibition unconvincingly boasts: “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. A must for all visual arts collectors and enthusiasts. Artists from past shows have included Leroy Campbell, Corinthia Peoples, Elizabeth Baez, Woodrow Nash, True African Art, and more.”    

The summer festival, moreover, continues to be dominated by the performing arts.

Atlanta visual arts lovers such as Kerry Davis are speaking out about the situation. "As a native Atlantan and collector of African American art, I, like many, am disappointed with the diminished presence of the visual art in the NBAF," says Davis. "I can remember the energy and all of the people who came out to support the Greenbriar market days. There seemed to be something there for everyone — from fine arts to arts and crafts. It was an exciting time."

"I really enjoyed the fine arts aspect of the festival that moved to the Mason Murer venue, although I think that it may have harmed the Greenbriar art scene," Davis adds. "I would love to see this event return to it's glory days when there was collaboration with some of the HBCU's, museums and non-profit galleries showing fine art work just for it's beauty and glorification. The Harlem Fine Art Show alone, and particularly in it's infancy here in Atlanta, is not a savior."

Despite the lack lustre visual arts situation, the overall decline of the NBAF, which sponsors year-round programming, is being reversed by the organization’s new board chair Sonya Halpern who comes to the position from a background in advertising sales, marketing and media strategy at major corporations. 

Along with Atlanta collectors such as Kerry Davis, some potential NBAF donors, whose support will be critical to continuing the reversal, care deeply about fine art and will want to see the organization give serious attention to this art form. That’s the cautionary note to the NBAF turn-around story reported by Gail O’Neill in Arts ALT:

"When Sonya Halpern assumed the role of board chair of the National Black Arts Festival (NBAF) last spring, the 25-year-old organization was nearly $500,000 in debt, host to a revolving door of leaders and suffering from an identity crisis. Between erratic scheduling, inconsistent programming and uneven branding, ‘people were a little confused about the festival and what the NBAF meant,’ says Camille Russell Love, director of Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs."    

Read the Arts ALT article here.