Memorial Drive: The NAC and the 1970s Black Arts Movement

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The Formwalt Street entrance to the Neighborhood Arts Center in 1980. The mural was created by John Riddle, Steve Seaberg, and Ashanti Johnson. Its inscription reads, Black is art, music, light since the beginning. All photographs by and courtesy Jim Alexander.

Ralph David Abernathy Memorial Park sits at the intersection of Formwalt Street and Abernathy Boulevard, near Turner Field. Artwork by Emma Amos that is titled We Will Not Forget (1996) graces that corner lot. Unfortunately, I think we have forgotten an important institution that existed during the foundation of Atlanta’s various community arts programs. The Neighborhood Arts Center (NAC) stood on this same corner, in the old Peter James Bryant School, when the thoroughfare now known as Abernathy Boulevard was Georgia Avenue, at least in the Mechanicsville community.

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As a historian, being able to make connections between past and present for a better future always excites me. I’ve worked with the collection of documentary photographer Jim Alexander since 1995. In the course of that work, I kept running across image after image and hearing him say, “Oh, that’s from the Neighborhood Arts Center.”

What was this center? How did so many local African American artists, administrators, and institutions get their start there? The NAC was the predecessor to publicly funded community arts centers currently supported by the Fulton County Arts Council. It was also the reason many grassroots arts projects got public sponsorship, yet few know the NAC’s place in the story of arts activism in Atlanta.

The continuum of black arts for the city starts with the Atlanta University Art Annuals,created from 1942 to 1969 by African American artist Hale Woodruff. It was a time when the city was segregated, yet Atlanta was nevertheless the venue for this national juried show. The Clark Atlanta University collections are among the positive results of those racially volatile times. In many of the interviews I conducted with NAC artists, audience members, and former students, the phrase “it was a time when” recurred often as interviewees juxtaposed earlier racial imbalances with what occurred during the transformative years of the 1970s. Institutions such as the Atlanta Jazz Festival and the National Black Arts Festival now lend the city some cultural balance, but Atlanta’s many transplanted residents make remembering where those institutions began a challenge all its own.

The Neighborhood Arts Center Big Band, directed by Joe Jennings, playing in Central City Park (now Woodruff Park) at the opening event for the Atlanta Free Jazz Festival, 1978. Image courtesy Jim Alexander.

Maynard Jackson (1938–2003) became the city’s first African American mayor and served an unprecedented three terms (1974–1982 and 1990–1994). By way of making a commitment to the arts at his inauguration, Jackson had his aunt Mattiwilda Dobbs, a singer with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, perform onstage with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at the Civic Center. She had refused to perform in her hometown as a protest against racial segregation of audiences. Jackson knew how the arts could enhance the quality of life because of his familial experiences involving cultural opportunities and because of the presence of the arts at his alma mater, Morehouse College. At the time, the Atlanta University Center (AUC) was also the hub for African American musical performances and plays, in addition to the annual exhibitions.

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Using federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) funds, Jackson created the Bureau of Cultural Affairs (the BCA, now the Office of Cultural Affairs), with Michael Lomax at its helm. The Mayor’s Ad Hoc Committee for the Arts, intentionally comprising a racially balanced group, took on the issues of what would be a blueprint for the arts in Atlanta and how the city could diversify cultural funds that were traditionally earmarked for the Memorial Arts Center (now the Woodruff Arts Center).  In a similar vein, the first Mayor’s Day for the Arts, modeled after Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival, had Shirley Franklin as its chair in 1975, long before her time as Atlanta’s mayor. The event represented an effort to bring a racially divided Southern city back together on its streets. The arts were a catalyst that made the city more attractive at a time not long after the nation’s vision of the South encompassed little beyond protest marches, police, dogs, and fire hoses.

The other major endeavor of the Mayor’s Ad Hoc Committee for the Arts was the 1975 creation of the Neighborhood Arts Center as a model  forcommunity arts in areas of the city traditionally underexposed to culture. The NAC’s artists and board of directors transformed a mothballed public school building at 252 Georgia Avenue into a multidisciplinary arts facility that employed ten CETA artists-in-residence, giving them studio space in exchange for free classes and outreach programs. The NAC’s initial $40,000 budget grew to more than $300,000 by 1981. Renowned artists such as Romare Bearden, Max Roach, Maya Angelou, and Peabo Bryson frequented the Georgia Avenue facility. The National Conference of Artists, an African American organization of professionals, convened in 1978 at the NAC headquarters. Other collaborations included working with the city to present the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the National Dance Company of Senegal for the first time in the South.

Some of the initial local talent included actors Samuel L. Jackson and Bill Nunn, writer Toni Cade Bambara, musician Ojeda Penn, and actress Georgia Allen. Poet-activists Ebon Dooley and Alice Lovelace, documentary photographer Jim Alexander, musician Joe Jennings, art historian Michael D. Harris, artist and curator Tina Dunkley, and Jomandi Productions theater company founder Tom Jones were just some of the practicing artists at the NAC. They inspired several students, including filmmaker Spike Lee, visual artist Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier, and Alphonso Sanders, who later served as dean of arts at Mississippi Valley State University. Jones even recalls aspiring thespian Tyler Perry sitting in on one of his NAC productions.

I think what’s so impressive are the manifestations of arts activism that still exist as a result of the NAC’s adoption of the historic Black Arts Movement “Art for People’s Sake” mantra. We ought to remember that it was a time when folks working in the city left it at 5 p.m. for the suburbs. Thus, the arts were a means for drawing the downtown community out of the high-rises and into the streets for free lunchtime jazz concerts performed by the NAC Big Band. Shirley Franklin, who headed the BCA after Lomax left city government to eventually become a Fulton County commissioner, was urged in 1978 by several NAC artists to create a jazz festival.

The NAC staff stands with Parks and Recreation director Michael Lomax, BCA director Shirley Franklin, and NAC supporter Peabo Bryson at Piedmont Park’s Arts Festival of Atlanta, 1979. Image courtesy Jim Alexander.

Although the city had a tradition of major public events in Piedmont Park, such as the Dogwood Festival, it was a time when African Americans did not have much of a public cultural presence. Visual artist John Riddle took over as NAC director in 1976. With percussionist and deputy director John Kolé Eaton, Riddle led the team of NAC artists in re-creating an African village on the pier at Piedmont Park in 1978.  With its drums and shakers, ethnic foods, clothing, arts, and crafts, the NAC’s installation drew new crowds to the park to celebrate black artists such as Bryson in 1979.

Jackson’s initial commitment to community arts centers as a model thus blossomed into the creation of dance festivals, the New Works Festival for theater companies, and the Atlanta Jazz Festival, which is currently celebrating more than three decades of existence. Jackson actually aspired to make Atlanta “the jazz capital of the world” and to create a jazz conservatory at the AUC. As chairman of the Democratic Conference of Mayors, Jackson could scarcely afford to ask other mayors to support the arts in their cities while Atlanta cut cultural funding. His protégée Shirley Franklin worked for the passage of a one-percent tourism/hotel tax for BCA’s budget, which allowed the department to provide public art programs at the airport and elsewhere, to offer grants to individual artists, and to support a variety of cultural institutions.

Lomax duplicated the BCA agency model after he was elected commissioner. He created the Fulton County Arts Council (FCAC) in 1979 as a caretaker and funnel for federal support, more so than as a programming body. In 1988, FCAC became a major funder in the creation of the National Black Arts Festival. Lomax quipped that he received more complaints over calling the new festival “black” than he did during his time at the NAC, which was unapologetically Afrocentric in its programming. FCAC Director Michael Simanga, always an arts activist, was an NAC participant and its director in 1987. He remembered absorbing much of his administrative acumen at the NAC, which had moved to its new location inside the historic Odd Fellows Building on Auburn Avenue in 1984, during the city’s urban revitalization efforts.

CETA ended in 1981, and the NAC struggled financially to continue the Art on Auburn program for five more years. The facility remained open with only one or two artist residencies, and continued use of the Romare Bearden Gallery name in honor of the earlier space. The Georgia Avenue building was destroyed by a 1986 fire. Even though the NAC assisted with the Atlanta Life Insurance Company’s annual exhibitions, which were a continuation of the Atlanta University Center’s series, the NAC could offer no serious competition for the newer NBAF, which favored national participants over local talent. The NAC Board could not sustain funding, and this early catalyst for grassroots arts support had to close in 1990.

The NAC model of a community arts center using public dollars to facilitate support for artists’ space and salaries paved a way for such institutions as the Forrest Avenue School Project, which spawned Nexus (now the Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center). Vincent Anthony’s creation of the Center for Puppetry Arts in 1978 also recalls this approach (using, in that case, the Spring Street Elementary School). This win-win approach of arts and politics working together, “art for people’s sake,” has fostered a better quality of life for Atlantans of all ages. Its memory ought to spur us all to remain arts activists. We must not forget.

Memorial Drive was a collaborative series by Burnaway and ArtsATL about the history of the arts in Atlanta

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