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
"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
"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
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
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.
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