A Room of Our Own: The Crisis in Black Culture

By Byron C. Saunders

Congratulations to the National Black Arts Festival (NBAF) on what seemed to be a successful eighteenth presentation. From all appearances, the fine arts, music, dance, theatre, film, and literary arts venues and events drew respectable crowds and favorable critical review. After years of struggling to find an identity, an audience, venues, and adequate corporate, private and public funding, the festival seems finally to be hitting its stride.

However, there are some rather ominous clouds that hang over this event that must be acknowledged and addressed hopefully sooner than later. The burning question of the hour is, what does the festival itself own? Annually, we have been told, costs exceed $2.5 million. These funds must be raised each year through the traditional funding sources (public, private, and corporate). After eighteen presentations, I recently learned, the festival has not collected a single piece of art as part of an established collection. There are no juried art exhibits. There is no catalogue from which to sell or display collected art in galleries in other cities. Every event (with the exception of a miniscule few) is held at a venue that is not owned by the NBAF, or an African American business, or an African American arts organization. These spaces must be rented and that rent almost never goes to African American business or arts organizations. So what assets can this event accrue and claim other than t-shirts, posters, and buttons?

As an African American artist and arts administrator, I am profoundly disturbed that our culture and its art and artifacts continue to be disrespected in the market place. Ownership of land or product is a huge part of what makes a business successful. Atlanta considers itself to be a Black Mecca and yet, after forty years of vast economic growth and development, in particular for its African American business community, there exists not a single Black-owned venue for an artistic presentation in the central business district or the entertainment corridor known as Peachtree Street.

I have sat in the audience at several of the major events over the past eighteen festivals and have agonized over the cavalier attitude exhibited by technicians, box office personnel, and facility administrators who don’t really care about African-American art or culture. Their singular care was the rent or their fees being paid.

I have sat in the audience where record-breaking revenues were collected only to know that the rental of such venues as the Fox Theatre or the Alliance Theatre, Symphony Hall, the 14th Street Playhouse, etc., would be the major beneficiaries of the success of those ticket sales.

This year alone, there was a wonderful opportunity for the festival to have made a significant impact both financially and artistically. T.D. Jakes’ Mega Fest was being held during the last week of the Festival. By accounts of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, this religious event itself brought to the city over $40 million dollars in revenue. However, I must state that I saw no evidence of any cross-fertilization of the Arts Festival and Mega Fest. For that matter the question must be asked how much of that $40 million even went to the local Black businesses of which the NBAF is a member?

Other disturbing questions must also be asked. The special pullout section of the Atlanta Journal Constitution that highlighted the National Black Arts Festival schedule was conspicuously void of major advertising from local and minority-owned businesses. It seemed that only a half-hearted attempt was made to make it work.

This city claims that this Arts Festival is so important to the cultural welfare of the community and yet I find that the attitude of the city and the enthusiasm of other cultural institutions somewhat questionable and really disingenuous. There are so many negative signs and unanswered questions that lead me to wonder about the seeming relegation of African American culture and art to the status of an endangered species even in the city that claims to be a Black Mecca.

Not having a single owned facility housing an African American arts institution is a damnable shame for Atlanta. After forty years, Atlanta has only one recognized Black professional theatre, only one recognized Black professional dance company, only one barely recognized Black history museum. This is unacceptable and should be cause for alarm from every sector of the business, social, political, religious, and cultural community in Metro-Atlanta. The impact of such a staggering statistic is reflected in such societal issues as high crime, poor schools, overcrowded jails, low self-esteem, and slow economic growth and development in the African American community.

Five years ago the Festival honored the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) and its contributions to Black theatre and the American stage. That celebration was more like a funeral and final tribute to a non-existing entity. Like so many wonderful African American theatre and dance companies that used to be in Atlanta and across the country, NEC no longer exists partially as a result of not having ownership of its own home performance space. Across the country the closing of so many once major Black arts organizations is staggering. And no one seems to care or even ask why is this happening?

Metro-Atlanta is currently giving itself a big high-five for the new Cobb County Performing Arts Center which will also house the Atlanta Opera. As much as we should all applaud this new space, how many more studies will be done that will suggest that use of this space and its success will be dependent upon the support from minority communities and their discretionary entertainment dollars. That will be the true test of Cobb County’s new-found focus or interest in diversity of culture and ethnicity. Yet it is interesting to note that not a single invitation has been extended to a minority arts organization to consider the new space as a permanent home for its use.

The Atlanta Opera sold its midtown office space to reduce its outstanding debt and create a needed cash surplus by managing its assets. In this day of diminishing public, private, and corporate support, it becomes increasingly important that our arts institutions have endowments and managed assets. Ownership of land and art is a great leverage in the market place. I would hope that the next phase of economic growth and development for our minority cultural institutions will be toward ownership of a home-based performance facility and control of its art and artifacts.

Byron C. Saunders is executive director/artistic director of Jomandi. He also ran Just Us Theatre Company for ten years and was a member of the Georgia Film Commission for seven. In New York City, he was the executive director of the Frank Silvera Writers’ Workshop, and of the Queens Historical Society as well as general manager for Black Spectrum Theatre in Jamaica, Queens. Since his return to Atlanta, he has worked as the production coordinator for Theatre of the Stars summer series at the Fox Theatre; development director for 7 Stages Theatre and was the CEO for Jomandi Productions. He is currently a field manager for Securitas Security in Atlanta, GA.


Feb/Mar 2007

This article originally featured in Vol. 18, Issue. 1

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