The State of the Folk and Traditional Arts 2021

By Cliff Murphy
a collage of images including a performer in traditional Chinese opera make-up and costume, a day of the dead altar, and Grant Bulltail, whois a Native American man

(clockwise from top left) A parade during the Egg Rolls, Egg Creams, and Empanadas Festival. Photo by Kate Milford; 2016 Dia de los Muertos Community Altar at Grand Park designed by NEA National Heritage Fellow Ofelia Esparza. Courtesy of Craft in America, photo by Denise Kang; NEA National Heritage Fellow Grant Bulltail

The last “State of the Folk Arts” I wrote was in 2016, while the nation was in the midst of what I hoped at the time was a fraught moment of divisiveness. In hindsight, it’s clear we were only at the very beginning of a long and painful reckoning.
The field of folk and traditional arts—that is, those that practice living traditions and the individuals and organizations that work in service of them—has always been a useful guide in navigating complex spaces of cultural identity. If a tree is only as strong as its roots, 2020 was a reminder that the roots of a multicultural nation remain resilient.

While the loss of major festivals and concerts caused real and crushing economic loss to artists, communities, and organizations, it was the human toll of COVID on elders and keepers of tradition that was most profound. To share just one example of this incalculable loss, when NEA National Heritage Fellow Grant Bulltail was lost to COVID in 2020, the Crow Nation lost one of its most treasured fluent speakers and teachers of Apsáalooke language. Bulltail held the living memory of pre-treaty times: as a young boy, he learned the origin stories of the Crow people and their place-names from his grandfather, Comes Up Red, who could recall a time before President Andrew Johnson ratified the treaty between the United States and the Crow Nation in 1868. Bulltail carried those memories forward through his service in Vietnam, his days as a folklore student at Utah State University, as an interpreter in state and national parks, in leadership roles in Crow Agency, Montana, and on into the chaos of 2020. The loss of so many elders like Grant Bulltail has been enormous—and its impact on cultural knowledge and living traditions is immeasurable.

The pandemic also created a period of imposed contemplation for all of us. For our field, this has meant contemplating what matters most and how we might be better advocates for cultural heritage, as well as rededicating ourselves to facilitating the transmission and understanding of traditions. National conversations hosted by the American Folklore Society, regular Living Traditions Network calls hosted by the National Council for the Traditional Arts, and a mapping out of the field’s infrastructure by organizations like Local Learning helped to fuel discussions of how the field might weather the economic impacts of COVID and emerge stronger. The commitment of the countless artists and organizational leaders who have participated in these ongoing discussions has made a difference and should be applauded.

As we start to emerge from the pandemic, we can see the strides this notoriously under-resourced field has made over the past five years: Arts Endowment support for the folk and traditional arts has increased by 25 percent and—beginning in 2021—for the first time, each and every state, jurisdictional, and regional arts agency will be supporting the traditional arts in their communities. Philanthropy, which has mostly overlooked folklife and cultural heritage for over two decades, has begun to recognize that community vitality involves watering the roots: the American Folklife Center, Alliance for California Traditional Arts, Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, SouthArts, and CityLore, among many others, have received substantial philanthropic support to carry out work of fieldwide impact and significance. And even while some state and regional arts organizations have moved away from discipline-based support, they have acknowledged that folk and traditional arts is a priority both for the NEA and for grassroots communities. We are optimistic that there is growing momentum toward more holistic support for folk and traditional arts—an optimism increased by the late-breaking news of Makenzie Scott’s most recent round of grants, which included millions in support for folklife and cultural heritage organizations.
This recent rise in funding for folk and traditional arts suggests that funders recognize that any serious commitment to diversity, equity, access, and inclusion must involve tradition bearers and the organizations that support them. While it’s too soon to tell if funding increases are a growing trend, it does speak to the power of convenings and research to help change conversations and the commitment of dollars. Major strides have been made in this arena over the past five years (see additional resources below).

At the same time, the field is reckoning with a longstanding conundrum: how the arts’ most diverse field is largely represented by a professional base that is mostly white.  Increasingly, we see practitioners, cultural elders, folklorists, funders, and organizations old and new gathering to ask questions of great importance: “Who controls the story? Who creates the definitions of what is/isn’t ‘traditional’? Who sets the priorities? Who gets credit for work well-done?”

These conversations are well-timed. The field of folk and traditional arts is a microcosm of the discourse around equity in the arts (and humanities). A multitude of intersectionalities created the need for folk and traditional arts advocates.(and disciplines) within arts and humanities agencies more than 40 years ago: consider, if you will, the fact that the great multitudes of American vernacular music (blues, bluegrass, gospel, powwow, conjunto  and so on) as well as non-Western musical traditions of many continental origins were not competitively adjudicated in the funding category of “Music” at most arts agencies for decades. Cultural hierarchies that kept—and keep—various cultural forms (and the communities that birth and nurture them) outside of the tent span all disciplines. We believe the world has evolved, but we still have far to go. This includes a reckoning about how arts agencies approach serving those communities who have historically been unsupported. Funders considering how to support rural and/or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities are often making a false choice: do we support traditional arts, or contemporary arts? As Penobscot basketmaker Jennifer Neptune has plainly stated it—traditional and contemporary arts are different slices of the same cake, “and the whole cake is better than just a slice.” Neptune’s sentiment is widely held across cultural communities, and she rightly believes that arts funders and curators need to acknowledge and support this timeless reality. So how do we get there?

That these discussions are happening now is heartening. Even more heartening is that growing discourse is happening across wide-ranging demographics, forging new leaders, alliances, and collaborations. As a field we have much work to do—from launching a new national initiative in the National Folklife Network (a $1 million investment in rural and urban spaces where folklife infrastructure is most thin), to the growing use of archival fieldwork to heal cultural roots, to a deepening awareness of the enormous value and impact of apprenticeships: this expansive new work and the post-COVID rebuilding of public life is primed to be a period of innovation, where the field of folk and traditional arts is understood as an essential piece of a healthy society.

Looking across the country from where I sit at the Arts Endowment, I am in awe of the leadership provided by so many very different people, of different personal, cultural, and professional backgrounds, who have drawn from deep wells of strength to carry us through these hard times. It is nothing short of astonishing. Here in the currently virtual office of Folk & Traditional Arts at the NEA, I am buoyed daily by my colleagues. Cheryl Schiele has shepherded the National Heritage Fellowships through quarantine–breaking new ground with the film The Culture of America: A Cross-Country Visit with the NEA National Heritage Fellows—all while bringing new vision to Folk Arts Partnerships and the rollout of the National Folklife Network. Bill Mansfield has worked with great sensitivity with countless organizations who are navigating upheaval in Grants for Arts Projects. Rachel McKean and Erin Waylor carry out critical, behind-the-scenes work that has enabled us to process, review, and make our grants under pandemic duress and a nearly doubled workload. Bill, Cheryl, Erin, and Rachel are the embodiment of public service, and the most important work that NEA Folk & Traditional Arts carries out would simply not happen without their tireless and expert commitment to the work.

Additional Resources

NEA/NASAA Close Listening Convening Summary [PDF]

American Folklife Center/ACTA National Support Systems for Folklife, Traditional Arts, and Cultural Heritage [PDF]

NEA Living Traditions: A Portfolio Analysis of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Folk & Traditional Arts Program

First Peoples Fund Investing in the Indigenous Arts Ecology [PDF]

Native Arts and Culture Foundation Native Arts and Culture: Resilience Reclamation and Relevance [PDF]

Native Artists Summit

Alliance for California Traditional Artists: Building Justice from the Source: Traditional Artists Respond to this Moment

Philadelphia Folklore Project: Negotiating Cultural Appropriation: Lineage, Teaching, and Relationships (Virtual Event Series)

Cliff Murphy was appointed the director of Folk & Traditional Arts at the National Endowment for the Arts in August 2015. He oversees the NEA’s grantmaking in folk and traditional arts, and manages the NEA National Heritage Fellowships.