Harlem Fine Arts Show Founder and Curator Dion Clarke.  (Photo Credit: Gerald Peart)
Harlem Fine Arts Show Founder and Curator Dion Clarke.
(Photo Credit: Gerald Peart)

The Harlem Fine Arts Show (HFAS) is America’s flagship art series that spotlights a range of visual works rooted in the African Diaspora. Over 80 well-known and debuting artists across generations showcase their creations in a gallery-style environment and have opportunities to interact with avid collectors, enthusiasts and community leaders.

This year marks HFAS’ fifth anniversary. The four-day exhibition is embarking on its first ever tour with stops in Atlanta, Martha’s Vineyard and Chicago. The Atlanta installment is a signature event during this year’s National Black Arts Festival (NBAF). “The art and artists are great treasures that have been hidden and are just becoming cognizant now,” says HFAS founder and curator Dion Clarke.

“We base these shows with the understanding that it’s a great opportunity to bring cultural nutrition and give back to a major arts organization or something that deals with cultural understanding.” HFAS was birthed from the National Black Fine Art Show (NBFAS), originally founded by Jocelyn Wainwright and Steadman Graham. After the art festival ended its 13-year run in 2009, Clarke, who helped to develop sponsorships and marketing opportunities for NBFAS, stepped in to give the art show an upgrade.

“I saw what they did with a gallery-type show and wanted to keep it artist-centered,” says an upbeat Clarke. “It’s a great way to give a greater understanding of what they do and how they go about doing it. To the young [Romare] Beardens and the artists that struggle, this is an oasis and an opportunity to do some really good stuff.”

“The artists need to be empowered, embraced, cuddled and held in a positive way. It’s not done much other than a small gallery here and there, and hopefully we can do that,” adds Clarke.

Clarke takes a page from Soul Train: calling HFAS “the hippest trip in America.” “It’s my pleasure to be a steward,” says Clarke. “It’s not only a conversation with the artists. It’s also a great dialogue with that piece. We transcend race, culture and creed. It’s something that’s really powerful. [HFAS] brings smiles, laughter and healing.”

“All art is good art,” adds Clarke. “It’s just what do you want to obtain from that piece. You have to know what you’re buying the art for.”

Taking HFAS on the road has its share of challenges. Clarke, who previously worked on marketing and advertising campaigns for brands like Ford Motor Company, Pitney Bowes, Black Enterprise and Essence Magazines, points out how the Atlanta exhibits are a litmus test for HFAS going forward.

HFAS, Clarke adds, is under a five-year plan to put on bigger, better shows. “We’re trying to stir the pot,” says Clarke, who is also a Clark Atlanta University alumnus.

“We’re still coming out of a recession. It’s hard to make sure that consumers are going to come out and find the best buys they can find.” Relaxed at a table in the lobby of Atlanta’s Omni Hotel at CNN Center, an optimistic, gray-haired Clarke talks in detail about HFAS’ lecture series that teaches the economics associated with art.

Clarke energetically jumps to the edge of his seat when he talks about youth empowerment day. HFAS invites camps, schools and various universities for a morning meet-and-greet with the artists and preview of the exhibits. The corporate sponsors also deliver seminars and presentations on their roles within HFAS.

The day is a chance for youth to link up with prospective mentors to learn a lesson in career and personal development. “I see kids coming out well-rounded,” says Clarke. “This is a show that’s evolved into so much more. It helps young people get a step ahead in life. When you give back, you get much more in return.”

“I’m not an artist myself; I’m an artrepreneur,” adds Clarke, still with an infectious grin. “I’m a businessman that loves the business of art and how integrating it can bring so much power to all communities and people across America.”

This year’s HFAS events were produced in partnership with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). The collaboration initially happened through Superbowl-related festivities. “We felt Harlem needed to be included into that spectrum,” says Clarke.

Similarly, NFLPA’s Smocks & Jocks effort works to benefit local arts charities. This year, the organization also donated $10,000 on top of raising funds to benefit The Harlem School of the Arts. Clarke also found the collaboration to be a great fit upon learning that professional football also included exceptional black painters such as Ernie Barnes.

“We looked a little bit deeper and found that it was community, show and players all coming together and working for one common cause,” says Clarke. “It gives back to the kids.”

Clarke had been up since 3 a.m. to make sure white walls that give the exhibits its classic museum look were being built properly. Even with a hectic overnight and early morning schedule, an easygoing and still smiling Clarke, the president of his own multicultural marketing company, JWD Enterprises, manages to take his work in stride.

“I have a great team that is a collection of highly skilled individuals in different niches,” says Clarke. “We get up, shake hands, thankful for each other and we sweep up the floor at the end of the night. You have to build that type of equity. With everybody’s expertise, we’re able to go to another level.”

Next year, an ambitious Clarke has his vision on taking HFAS to six cities. He seeks to take the show throughout Europe after that. Pointing out all of his corporate experiences and how beneficial they were to his development, nothing manages to get Clarke’s juices flowing quite like his commitment to HFAS.

“I’ve learned that you control your own destiny,” says Clarke. “You can find your passion and sweet spot. We work 12 to 14 hours a day, and we still have the energy to put in some more time. This is what we live for.”

The Harlem Fine Arts Show comes to Atlanta from June 26-29, 2014. Please visit hfas.org for additional information.

This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.

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