NEA Arts Magazine

The Business of Culture

Community-building through the National Folk Festival


view of street crowd from behind the band

Bluegrass band Sierra Hull & Highway 111 from Byrdstown, Tennessee, performing at the 71st National Folk Festival in Butte, Montana, July 10-12, 2009. Photo by Walter Hinick, courtesy of The National Council for the Traditional Arts.

Each year, in cities from Butte, Montana, to Richmond, Virginia, hundreds of thousands of people converge, not to see the latest rock band or the hottest movie star but to experience art that reveals and celebrates our nation's diverse culture -- the folk and traditional arts. The oldest multicultural celebration of traditional arts in the nation, the free, three-day National Folk Festival presents a range of performing arts, as well as ethnic food and craft and folklife demonstrations, that showcase the host region's own folk traditions in addition to the full range of folk arts.

The first landmark celebration, originally produced by Sarah Gertrude Knott in St. Louis in 1934, forever changed the idea of a folk festival, expanding the concept from a single-focus event to a multicultural festival. Today the festival includes indigenous and immigrant traditions as diverse as Native-American basketry, Puerto Rican cuatro-making, and Cambodian classical dance. The National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA) -- founded by Knott as the National Folk Festival Association -- continues to work with local partners to produce the annual festival that is today attracting the largest audiences in its long history.

In the mid-1980s, NCTA made the strategic decision to move the festival from the Washington, DC area, where it had been held the previous 11 years, to travel to communities across the nation, where the festival remains for a three-year tenure. To date, 26 communities have acted as festival host. At the end of each residency, the national event moves on, having laid the groundwork for the community to create its own folk festival. NCTA, however, often continues to play a key role, providing the communities with invaluable programming and production support for partner festivals. With NCTA's support, six sites have successfully established their own annual folk festivals after the national residency, three of which are entirely locally produced. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has also played a crucial role, providing funding for both the National Folk Festival and its off-shoots.

Young woman in brightly colored clothes carrying her national flag in a parade

A dancer with Nadia Dieudonne & Feet of Rhythm performs at the American Folk Festival in Bangor, Maine. Photo by Kevin Bennet

The National Folk Festival brings many benefits to its host communities: featured artists receive more exposure, and subsequently more bookings; the community gains a sense of accomplishment and ownership; and, ultimately, the festival has an incredible economic impact on the local area. NCTA Executive Director Julia Olin acknowledged that, with an operating budget of just $2 million a year, NCTA is able to generate an annual economic impact of $36 million in the four current and former host communities where the NCTA is engaged today.

When choosing host cities, NCTA considers both practical (parking, fundraising potential) and intangible factors. According to Olin, "In the communities that we go to we see a commonality -- there's this critical mass of energy, a shared vision, and goals that the community wants very much to achieve. And the festival becomes a vehicle for that change."

Lowell, Massachusetts, home to one of the longes trunning spin-offs of the National Folk Festival, was the first city to benefit from the three-year festival residency. The revivifying effects of the National Folk Festival became apparent as Lowell transformed from a depressed former mill town into a vibrant community.

Woman folk singer with guitar onstage at the microphone

Martha Spencer of Whitetop Mountain Band performing at the Lowell Folk Festival in Massachusetts. Photo by Jim Higgins, courtesy of Lowell Folk Festival.

More than 23 years later, the Lowell Folk Festival still draws crowds exceeding 150,000 each year and is a prime example of the importance of the cultural economy. With local restaurants overflowing, the Lowell festival is the highest grossing weekend of the year for many local businesses. "The degree of success was really a surprise to everyone," says Olin. "Suddenly, although I'm not sure it was recognized right at that moment, the NCTA found itself not only in the business of culture but in the business of urban and revitalization efforts."

When Bangor, Maine, first hosted the National Folk Festival in 2002, it had already begun efforts to revitalize its community with two new downtown museums and a library expansion, but wanted to do more. John Rohman, a community leader involved in the festival from its beginning, explained, "We wanted to raise the bar, raise the awareness in our community for events that could happen in our downtown and on our waterfront."

With the news that it had been picked to host the 64th–66th National Folk Festivals, Bangor's determination to show off the city in a positive light became evident. Community leaders donated their time to be a part of the festival committee, and members of the public participated in local beautification projects. Rohman said, "There is absolutely no question that this event single-handedly allowed the city to open up its vision to what could be done."

With audiences that peak near 200,000 by the national event's third year in residence, host communities have a solid audience base on which to establish their own folk festival (as Bangor did with their American Folk Festival, which began in 2005). The major challenge is fundraising the approximately $1 million budget. The partner festivals are also free of charge, so organizers can't defer costs through ticket sales. Communities receive support from national funders, such as the NEA, but many also depend on community fundraising. Heather McCarthy, executive director of Bangor's festival, said, "We are making requests of absolutely everybody we can think of, from the largest employers in the state, right down to the Mom-and-Pop stores downtown, and individuals, foundations, and municipalities." Communities also depend on in-kind contributions. For instance, in Bangor, the local newspaper donates ad space and local public relations firms donate marketing expertise.

Communities quickly learn, however, that the economic benefit of these folk festivals is worth the effort. In 2008, the American Folk Festival in Bangor worked with the University of Maine's Center for Tourism Research and Outreach to conduct an in-depth analysis of its audience and their visiting and spending habits. The study revealed that the festival created a $9.8 million impact on the local community each year.

But the National Folk Festival is not only about building the community economically, but also highlighting what is important about its culture. To make the festival even more connected to the community hosting it, NCTA draws on the knowledge of local folklorists, ethnomusicologists, and other cultural specialists to make sure that each iteration of the national festival reflects the local site. Olin said, "In our programming, we not only bring new and exciting artists and traditions to a community that perhaps have never, or very infrequently, been presented there, but also showcase the heritage and culture of the host community and region." For example, at the 2009 National Folk Festival in Butte, Montana, NCTA organized programming around the horse culture of Montana and the West, including horsehair hitching, saddle making, and "cutting" horse demonstrations and family activities such as yodeling lessons and a pony petting zoo.

native american riders in regalia parade on horses in front of the grandstand

A Native-American horse parade opens the 71st National Folk Festival in Butte, Montana. Photo by Laura L. Lundquist, courtesy of The National Council for the Traditional Arts

Although more than 70 years have passed since it was created, the National Folk Festival's central mission has remained intact -- to promote the best arts in a range of traditions, from those traditions which developed in this country over centuries to new immigrant arts. But with NCTA's decision to take the festival back into communities across the country, it is creating both a deep appreciation for the folk arts and using the festival to help communities reveal their full potential -- both artistically and economically. As John Rohman commented about Bangor's festival, "It's part of the fabric of the community now. It's fantastic."