Over the last three decades, the Atlanta-based National Black Arts Festival has persisted in its mission to advance the contributions of artists of African descent by showcasing Black artists from all over the country in Atlanta.

In the process, it has become a staple in the art community for Black artists, who now have a platform to impress their art into the fabric of society.

Though the mission has always remained the same, the direction of the organization has certainly changed.

One of the driving forces behind that change is CEO Vikki Morrow, whose vision is to work directly with artists to progress their careers, implement programs to foster new talent and reimage what the organization can do for Black artists.

Under Morrow’s guidance, the organization now focuses more on implementing year-round programming to uplift youth and emerging artists.

“(Morrow) is doing an outstanding job of reconnecting the NBAF with the community through partnerships and collaborations,” said Lionell Thomas, director of the Fulton County Arts Council. “She is thoughtful and deliberate in her actions and is perfect for taking the NBAF to the next level.”

This year marks the 30th Anniversary of the National Black Arts Festival (NBAF). With 30 years under its belt, NBAF has existed as a non-profit that provides artistic and educational programming in dance, fashion, film, literature, music and visual arts.

Founded in 1987 by Michael Lomaz, former Chair of the Fulton County Commission and President of the United Negro College Fund, the organization hosted its first biannual festival back in 1988.

Over the course of its 30-year history, the NBAF has engaged in partnerships with the High Museum of Art, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, the Rialto Center of Arts, the Auburn Avenue Research Library, Emory University, Spelman and Morehouse Colleges, and the Atlanta Beltline. The organization’s most significant partnership to date is one that it shares with Atlanta Public Schools (APS).

In honor of NBAF’s 30th anniversary, the organization is offering an entire month of festival programming, showcasing a number of events and exhibits that capture NBAF’s past accomplishments and future goals.

Programming for the festival included the “Without Stopping” exhibit at the Westside Cultural Arts Center (Sept. 15-16); Jazz at the High Museum (Sept. 21); the “30 Years of NBAF Gallery” exhibit at the Chastain Arts Gallery (Sept. 22-Oct. 12), “True Colors Celebrating Nina Simone: Four Women” at Southwest Arts Center (Sept. 23), and “A Block Party in Motion” on the west side of the Atlanta Beltline (Sept. 29).

“For the last five years, NBAF has been selecting a discipline to focus on, whether its dance, theater, art or music. We decided for our 30th anniversary to focus on visual art,” Morrow said, describing the new direction of NBAF. “In order to support, we have done two things. One, we hosted a big exhibition on Sept. 15-16 for our opening weekend. The exhibit lasts until the end of September and focuses on emerging and some established artists.

“Additionally, we have an exhibit where we’re looking back throughout the past 30 years,” she continued. “We’re looking at some of the past festivals, some of the commissioned art that was done over the last 30 years, some films and other wonderful things.”

Some of the artists whose work will be showcased during the festival include Alfred Conteh, Cedric Umoja, Cosmo Whyte, Fahamu Pecou, Roni Nicole Henderson, Shanequa Gay, William Thomas and Zipporah Thompson, to name a few.

An Atlanta resident herself for 30 years, Morrow started her career in corporate America. She also spent a decade of her career in the public sector with organizations that served women.

“I have a soft spot for empowering women and girls,” she said.

A previous board member for NBAF and a current board member for the Atlanta Jazz Festival, Morrow passionately acknowledged that it was her love for the arts that led to her current position.

“While I was sitting on the board, we had a search for the next new executive director and it seemed like a great fit,” Morrow said. “I felt that I could help the organization and do what I love as well.”                           

Now, after a year at the helm of NBAF, Morrow said that while she is excited about the work the organization has done since 1987, her work is not yet complete.

“Even though we’ve come a long way in 30 years, we still have a shortage of people of color, specifically Black people, that are really taking their parts in fashion or really succeeding in the visual arts space,” Morrow admitted.

Through exploring some of the organization’s past challenges, Morrow has been able to explain the need to implement this critical, forward-thinking programming.

“After the recession, NBAF had to (reset),” Morrow said. “What we’ve done for the last decade has been to move away from the huge festival. We really didn’t have the funding to support that anymore.”

That’s why Morrow said she takes pride in the organization’s new Youth Development and Engagement Series, which presents a number of key programs designed to foster and develop young talent.

“We’ve gone toward figuring out how to uplift the next generation of artists,” she said. “We’ve included a fair number of school-based programs and created a dance initiative in our middle schools. (We) have something called NextGen Artist in two Atlanta public high schools. Now, we’re focused on visual arts, fashion design, and film and media.”

Move/Dance!, a program that reaches over 500 pre-teen students who attend Sylvan, Young and King middle schools is essentially an educational program that marries creative arts with good health practices.

Its goals are to address issues of obesity, hypertension, diabetes and other health issues while promoting movement and exercise through dance.

Meanwhile, the NextGen Artist program targets high schools, providing artistic, professional and entrepreneurial development in Washington and Mays high schools.

Through the NextGen Artist program, student participants are able to focus on careers in film/media, visual arts and fashion design. Its extensive curriculum offers training in storyboard creation, editing, photography, communication skills/writing, portfolio building and business planning. More than 100 students have benefitted from this program.

NBAF has also created the Fashion Forward competition. This competition offers fashion students an opportunity to win a $2,500 scholarship and a week-long display in the windows of Neiman-Marcus.

Open to all four-year fashion students of African descent in Georgia, Fashion Forward has advanced the careers of 20 emerging young designers since its inception in 2010.

“The (Fashion Forward) program launched the career of Azede Jean-Pierre,” Morrow explained. “She is originally from Haiti and was a Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) student when she applied.”

Jean-Pierre has gone on to design pieces for former first lady Michelle Obama, Mayor Shirley Franklin, and Solange Knowles.

Morrow also cites Radcliffe Bailey as another success story whose career was supported and nurtured through the NBAF.

A famous and internationally known visual artist, Bailey began his career in Atlanta and was able to flourish with help from the organization.

“We gave financial support for his first trip to Africa, where he was able to go with some other people on a DNA journey,” Morrow said. “That trip began to shape how Radcliffe’s work shows up today.

“All of Radcliffe’s work has a historical significance, and he says that it’s because of the trip that NBAF sponsored to Senegal,” she continued. “He is one of only two African-American artists who has ever had a full exhibit at the High Museum of Art. He also has the largest piece of artwork in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.”

For Morrow, the work of the NBAF is truly about making a difference in the lives of artists. The reality, however, is that the NBAF’s resources, while effective, are limited. Which is why Morrow believes that more participation from corporations in the arts will help.

“I’d love to see more corporations realize what needs to be done to support our artists,” she said. “If more corporations, businesses, sports teams and entertainers really embraced and understood that the arts economy is huge—especially the virgin film industry and creative arts industry in Atlanta—we could lend similar support to dancers as well as visual artists and fashion designers.”

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