By Howard Pousner
First as deputy director and then as director of Fulton County Arts & Culture, Michael Simanga had his hands on the wheel of the biggest public arts funding organization in Georgia for three years starting in 2008.
Now, Simanga has switched from funds provider to seeker as the new executive director of the National Black Arts Festival, whose summer extravaganza has been scaled back in recent years due to recession-spurred cutbacks in corporate, foundation and governmental support.
The 32-year Atlanta resident said he’s happy for the change and ready to sell the NBAF, which typically has operated with an annual budget of more than $2 million, to supporters familiar and new. As he discussed the organization’s “very rich 23-year history” and the intention for it to be “relevant going way in the future” with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the 57-year-old arts leader sounded as if he was polishing his boardroom pitch.
Simanga’s main charge is to turn the NBAF into a true year-round arts presenter, a stated goal in recent years that didn’t get significant traction due to the sputtering economy. But he says when plans are announced this spring for the summer festival in Centennial Park, the NBAF will also reveal details on several “major” visual arts and literary projects that will occur between the 24th annual gathering and a larger 25th one.
Simanga shared his thoughts …
On the necessary evolution of the NBAF: “We want to have a much bigger impact as a cultural institution. The capacity and sustainability of the organization are dependent on it. We have a very particular relevance. I use that word because oftentimes people ask the question, ‘Is the NBAF still relevant?’ And our relevance is we tell a very important and particular part of the American story that nobody else does in the way that we do. But we can’t be just a festival or a festival that does a few programs throughout the year. So the idea is to move with all deliberate speed and to reorganize our infrastructure and also how we project our organization’s programming and value into the community. The festival will be one of the products we produce, one of several.”
On increasing the NBAF’s educational offerings: “With every major program initiative we undertake, we want to develop a series of ancillary programs and products with it. These will be distributed in the traditional ways … but also [via] Internet-based curriculum.”
On if there is financial support to increase presentations and educational offerings: “We have to position the NBAF based on its very rich 23-year history of preparing and presenting and producing and developing important artistic products. The story of its value has to be told much better. Over 23 years, the NBAF has pumped millions of dollars into the local economy. We’ve employed hundreds of people. We’ve impacted schools and children. We’ve taught other people how to present festivals. Like all organizations, we have challenges. But despite those challenges we’ve been able to continue to produce at a high level.”
On the need to find producing partners: “I’m a big proponent of collaborations. We have to find ways … to create partnerships that benefit the entire community — where we can pool resources and get maximum effect.”
On the shrinking festival in recent years: “It’s the reality of the times we’re living in … [and the fact that I'm] the third person in leadership in four years. … If you’re asking me if I could have done anything different in these last few years, or five years ago, I really don’t know. Even in that period of economic crisis, which we’re still not out of, the organization continued to do significant work, though not on such a grand stage as it has before. So I look at it as a natural contraction as part of the transition we’re in.”
On the success he hopes for with fund-raising: “I’m positive about it, because in the last few days I’ve had a number of conversations with funders, other key stake holders, people in the community and artists, and everyone is still very supportive of the idea that the NBAF is a critical organization that needs to be supported. … We’ve been very lucky. Most of the key foundations and corporate sponsors have remained with us for over two decades. And we’re getting calls every day from people who are wanting to come back as sponsors and some new companies [as well]. When you start having people express an interest in giving you money, that’s a very good thing.”