Group of business leaders rallied to bring Black Arts Fest MKE to fruition

New festival makes its debut on the Summerfest grounds this Saturday

Don Smiley, president and CEO of Milwaukee World Festival, Inc., introduces the organizers of Black Arts Fest MKE.

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:11 pm

Black Arts Fest MKE, a new festival celebrating African and African American culture, will make its debut on Saturday, reviving the tradition of having a black heritage celebration on Milwaukee’s lakefront.

Don Smiley, president and CEO of Milwaukee World Festival, Inc., introduces the organizers of Black Arts Fest MKE.

The festival at Henry Maier Festival Park will include music and dance performances, workshops, food, artists and art vendors. It marks the return of a festival celebrating black heritage at the Summerfest grounds, five years after the former African World Festival had its final run.

Behind the effort is a team from the Milwaukee business community who has rallied to bring the new festival to fruition in time for the 2018 festival season.

“Milwaukee has this wonderful tapestry of ethnic festivals that it showcases after Summerfest and, for many years as a child growing up in the area, I remember attending African World Festival,” said Derek Tyus, chairman of the Black Arts Fest MKE board, and vice president and chief investment officer for West Bend Mutual Insurance. “We lamented its absence and we decided it would be nice to see the African and African American culture represented in that tapestry of ethnic festivals here in the city.”

The turnaround of launching an entirely new festival has been quick. Conversations about the possible revival of a black ethnic festival began late last year. Organizers initially considered holding off on the festival’s launch until 2019 to allow more fundraising time, but ultimately felt an urgency to not wait another year.

Derek Tyus

“The festival had been gone for a period of time; if we didn’t do it in 2018, it would be difficult to raise money for future years,” said Gregory Wesley, senior vice president of strategic alliances and business development for the Medical College of Wisconsin, and a Black Arts Fest MKE board member. “So we made a game-time decision to do it in 2018.”

Support from the business and philanthropic community has been strong, said Patrice Harris, executive director of the festival.

“A lot of companies and foundations were extremely generous and really enthused that a festival was was coming back because they also recognized there was a void,” Harris said, noting that financial contributions to date are “just shy” of the festival’s fundraising goal.

Black Arts Fest MKE’s major sponsors include We Energies Foundation, Johnson Controls, Greater Milwaukee Foundation, Aurora Health Care, Ralph Evinrude Foundation, Inc., BMO Harris Bank, Northwestern Mutual and 2-Story.

Gregory Wesley

In addition to Tyus and Wesley, board members include Cory Nettles, founder and managing director of Generation Growth Capital, Inc.; Grady Crosby, vice president of public affairs at Johnson Controls; community volunteer Jackie Herd-Barber; Mark Wade, former president of the African World Festival Board; Marvin Bynum II of Godfrey & Kahn; and Barbara Wanzo, executive director of Black Arts MKE.

Organizers expect at least 9,000 people to attend the festival, which Harris considers a conservative estimate. Beginning as a one-day event this year, Black Arts Fest MKE could expand to become a two-day or weekend-long festival in future years, Wesley said.

The festival will include four stages of entertainment, including The Miller Lite Oasis, Johnson Controls Sound Stage, a cultural expression stage and children’s stage. Musical headliners include blues musician Bobby Rush, R&B group Tony! Toni! Toné!, hip hop artist MC Lyte, singer and former American Idol finalist Naima Adedapo, and The Prince Experience.

Patrice Harris

“We hope (visitors) have fun and that they find it to be an educational experience,” Harris said. “All of the activities in the children’s area are focused around the culture. We want it to ignite a desire to learn more about their heritage. It’s a blend of contemporary and traditional entertainment. We’ll have African dance and drumming, we’ll have hip hop. There is so much diversity in the entertainment.”

Harris said the festival will provide its vendors and exhibitors, more than 90 percent of which are black-owned businesses or artists, with exposure that will encourage attendees to patronize their businesses after the festival ends.

“It gives visitors the opportunity to learn and experience the culture and be exposed to businesses and artisans that they may not have known about and then support those businesses moving forward,” she said.

Wesley said his hope for festival attendees is simple.

“A smile,” he said. “That’s it. That’s what I hope they take away, a genuine good time. The African American community has contributed greatly to the vibrancy of this community and we want people to celebrate that with art, music and culture. It’s for the entire community.”

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