National Endowment for the Arts Statement on the Death of National Heritage Fellow Jim Griffith

A man sits in a wooden rocking chair petting a black dog with bookshelves and large windows in the background
Jim Griffith, 2011 National Heritage Fellow Photo by Tom Pich

Washington, DC—It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the passing of folklorist Jim Griffith, recipient of the 2011 Bess Lomax Hawes NEA National Heritage Fellowship, awarded to an individual who has made major contributions to the excellence, vitality, and public appreciation of the folk and traditional arts. "Big Jim," as he was affectionately known, was devoted to celebrating and honoring the folkways and religious expression found along the United States-Mexico border. He directed the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona and founded the annual folklife festival, Tucson Meet Yourself.

In a 2011 interview with the NEA, Griffith discussed the creation of Tucson Meet Yourself: “We figured we'd produce an occasion where folks could enjoy other cultures and have the different cultural offerings in the town presented with a certain amount of knowledge and accuracy and dignity….That was really one of our hidden motives—community building. It has taken a long, long time but I'm very happy with where it is and what it's doing.”

Born in Santa Barbara, California, Griffith came to Tucson in 1955 to attend the University of Arizona, where he received three degrees, including a PhD in cultural anthropology and art history. From 1979 to 1998, Griffith led the university's Southwest Folklore Center, dedicated to defining, illuminating, and presenting the character of the Greater Southwest. In 1974, Griffith co-founded Tucson Meet Yourself, a festival that celebrates Tucson's ethnic and cultural diversity, with more communities participating every year. 

Griffith wrote several books on southern Arizona and northern Mexico folk and religious art traditions, including Hecho a Mano: The Traditional Arts of Tucson's Mexican American Community and Saints of the Southwest. In addition, Griffith hosted Southern Arizona Traditions, a television spot on KUAT-TV's Arizona Illustrated program. He curated numerous exhibitions on regional traditional arts including La Cadena Que No Se Corta/The Unbroken Chain: The Traditional Arts of Tucson's Mexican American Community at the University of Arizona Museum of Art.

Griffith was honored for his distinguished service to folklore and the state of Arizona with awards such as the American Folklore Society’s Benjamin A. Botkin Prize in 1998 for significant lifetime achievement in Public Folklore, the 2005 Henry Glassie Award from Vernacular Architecture Forum, and the 2009 Pima County Library Lifetime Achievement Award and served as the Grand Marshall for the 2010 Tucson Rodeo Parade. His professional commitment was always to understand the cultures of the Southwest region and to pass along that knowledge and understanding to the public as respectfully and accurately as possible.

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Jim Griffith

For more than four decades, 2011 National Heritage Fellow Jim Griffith has been devoted to celebrating and honoring the folkways and religious expression found along the Arizona-Mexico border.

About the National Endowment for the Arts

About the National Heritage Fellowships

The National Heritage Fellowships are the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. Including the 2021 class, the Arts Endowment has awarded 458 National Heritage Fellowships, recognizing artists working in more than 200 distinct art forms, including Japanese classical dancer Gertrude Yukie Tsutsumi, Tejano musician and singer Manuel "Cowboy" Donley, Passamaquoddy basketmaker Molly Neptune Parker, leatherworker James F. Jackson, oud player and composer Rahim AlHaj, and quilting community advocate Carolyn Mazloomi. More information about the National Heritage Fellows is available on the Arts Endowment’s website.


About the National Endowment for the Arts

Established by Congress in 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts is the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector, the Arts Endowment supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America. To learn more, visit or follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.


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