Community feature: Margaret A. Nivins reflects on longtime support of the local arts scene

Erica Thompson

By 1971, the nation was swept up in Jackson 5 mania. The group had become the first to debut with four consecutive No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. The Jacksons' success spurred merchandise, television specials and even a cartoon series.

So when the fivesome's national tour stopped in Columbus at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium on January 30, it was a big deal. And 9-year old Margaret A. Nivins was ready. She'd saved her money to purchase the $6.50 ticket, and picked out a special outfit: an orange blouse and a navy blue vest with flowers and matching slacks.

“I know I enjoyed it,” Nivins said in a late-May interview at a coffee shop near Downtown. “They were all the rage.”

It wouldn't be the last time the young Nivins was exposed to nationally renowned celebrities. Her older sister later took her to see the play “Eubie!” on Broadway, where she met Gregory Hines backstage. But she also got to know the work of local artists like Aminah Robinson and Elijah Pierce through efforts at her church.

“I'm glad that I was introduced to the arts at such an early age,” Nivins said. “As I get older, I tend to appreciate it a lot more. … I try to support the arts.”

That is understatement. Nivins said she has been attending an inordinate amount of events in the city since you could “set your watch” by Patti LaBelle and Wynton Marsalis' frequent visits to Columbus in the 1980s. The proof is in her thick photo albums of autographed pictures, newspaper clippings and ticket stubs, which she preserves alongside photos of her with LaBelle, Marsalis, Denzel Washington, Kenny G and many, many more.

Today she attends roughly 15 plays, concerts, comedy shows and other events across the city each month, which translates to around 180 per year. “It's probably more than that,” said Nivins, although she doesn't count. She also avoids adding up the cost of her hobby.

“I don't spend a lot of money on wardrobe, shoes, jewelry, hair [or] makeup,” Nivins said. “I know I spend way more money than the average person on arts and entertainment because that's my thing. And that's fine, I think. I pay my bills in a timely manner.”

In the past, Nivins would email friends and family informal reviews or recount her experiences in person. One reaction stuck with her.

“A young lady [was] like, ‘Oh, yeah, thanks, Margaret. Thanks for telling me after the fact,'” Nivins said. “So I took that and put it in my pocket and thought about it. And I'm like, OK, maybe I can do a little something to inform people about what's happening in Columbus.”

So for at least a decade, but probably much longer, Nivins has been emailing an unofficial monthly newsletter about upcoming events to friends, family and folks she meets out and about. “It is my labor of love,” she said.

That is another understatement. Each month, Nivins curates her list from myriad sources, including publications, fliers and websites. Because she doesn't own a computer, she visits the library to build a table of events in a two-page Word document. She then attaches the file to an e-mail, and types in approximately 450 recipient e-mail addresses — one by one.

“One day — I don't know when — I will make a distribution list or I might make a few distribution lists,” she said. “And then that would make my life simpler.”

That would certainly come in handy if an accident should occur — like the time she accidently knocked out the computer power cord and lost her data.

“I'm like, ‘OK, maybe I'm not gonna do it this month,'” she recalled. “[But] I stayed there and started over from the beginning.”

Nivins was honored with a 2006 King Arts Complex Dream Award for her “outstanding and sustained contributions” to the organization (she is a member) and the city. But she receives daily recognition from community members. In fact, during our interview, she was greeted by multiple people in the cafe.

“She does a community service by keeping us all informed,” said one woman at a nearby table.

Local author, journalist and filmmaker Chris Bournea met Nivins about 20 years ago when he was the entertainment editor for theColumbus Post. “Wherever I went, she seemed to be,” he said. “She genuinely has an interest in supporting the arts, especially local artists and African-American artists in particular. … People whose work she admires or whose work she would like to see supported, she always includes that in her email.”

“I appreciate all types of art. … [But] black art, that's my niche,” Nivins said. “In 2018, I don't think people can really say, ‘Oh, there's no local black art or no national black artists coming to Columbus.' … There is a wealth of talent [here.]”