Building institutions, relationships is Smith's forte

Creating great things from scratch has been a consistent theme in Michelle Smith's professional life. Director of corporate relations in the Institutional Advancement Division, Smith has spent a good portion of her career as an entrepreneur, building three non-profit organizations from the ground up.

"I like the synergy and the energy associated with start-up enterprises," Smith said. "It takes a different kind of personality, and a different sense of energy and timing and pace, than coming into an established organization that's already got structure and rules and regulations, and your job is to figure out how you fit into that structure. On the front end of start-ups, you're creating the structure and making informed decisions about what occurs, when that ought to occur, and oftentimes when you ought to get out."

Building the finest festival

The project Smith helped get off the ground that Atlantans are most likely to be familiar with is the National Black Arts Festival, a biennial event that began in 1988. The festival features the work of artists of African descent in eight artistic disciplines. Events are held throughout the metro Atlanta area.

"I was brought into the project once the Fulton County Arts Council had determined that they wanted to have a first-rate, national festival that showcased the work of artists of African descent," said Smith, who served as the festival's executive director for its first five years. "[Former Fulton County Commission Chair] Michael Lomax was really the person who made the festival happen in terms of a concept. The Fulton County Commission made a commitment of $750,000 over two years, and then they hired me.

"They really wanted a manager/planner/administrator, because the festival had to be put together," Smith continued. "There was no staff, no office. There was nothing but an initial commitment of seed funding. So when I came in October of 1986, I worked alone at my computer for six months putting the guts of the festival together, developing an organizational structure with a board, finding office space and hiring staff."

The festival office opened in April 1987, and the first festival was held the following year. Smith was delighted, and at times overwhelmed, by the national and international response to the festival. "We had 500,000 people at our festival," said Smith. "We were having to bust people who were ripping off our licensing and our logo. We had a film crew from Germany that just decided to film some of the artists' work. You can't go in and simply film an artist's work, because you don't know what they're going to do with it. When we started having to bust people, I knew we were hot."

As a testament to the festival's appeal and popularity, Smith said the Rockefeller Foundation, one of the sponsors of the 1990 festival, used a print the festival had commissioned for the 1990 event as the cover of the foundation's annual report that year.

Building innovative relationships

Smith believes her current role of enlisting corporate support for Emory has many parallels with her work at the National Black Arts Festival. "The challenge of creating an image and a market for our organization where one did not exist was a singularly exciting opportunity," Smith said of her festival days. "There are some parallels in that to what I do at Emory. The University is launching a new arts initiative with the hope of developing a new venue on campus. In order to do that, we must take our existing resources and present them in a comprehensive way that creates a presence for Emory in the arts. Emory has not had a presence in the arts in the classical sense."

Smith said that while many people know about Emory's excellent music, theater and dance programs, "creating a sense of Emory as an arts and cultural center is a new kind of thing. It's the challenge of taking the resources you have and repositioning them, and creating a strategy around that which expands and creates a foundation upon which you can then build support and funding and all the other attendant things. That's very much the same kind of challenge I had with the festival. The door is wide open in terms of an opportunity for Emory to strategically think about what it wants to be and to carve out a niche for itself in Atlanta."

An emerging challenge Smith faces in her Emory work is finding creative ways for Emory to form partnerships with corporations, rather than simply asking them for financial support. She said it is increasingly important to businesses that their activities in support of non-profit organizations be aligned with the corporation's business interests. "If we as a University have major environmental programs that focus on preserving natural resources and educating the public about energy use and misuse, then that might be a strategic tie for Georgia Pacific," said Smith. "That for them might be a strategic business interest, to get involved in our conservation project."

Being expertly adept at facilitating the development of those kinds of relationships to the benefit of both parties has been the key to success in Smith's past work, including the marshaling of support for the National Black Arts Festival. In a rapidly changing corporate environment, Smith is well aware that her relationship-building skills will be even more crucial in the future as she helps advance Emory's mission.

--Dan Treadaway

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