State of the Arts: Folk & Traditional Arts

By Clifford Murphy
Headshot of a man.

Photo courtesy of Edwin Remsberg

At the end of March, I will be leaving my post at the National Endowment for the Arts. While I am excited about the opportunities that await, it is a bittersweet moment: I will miss my dedicated and visionary team here at the NEA, and yet am filled with confidence for the future of folk and traditional arts.

In my seven-and-a-half years as director of folk and traditional arts, I have been able to conduct NEA visits to 25 states, 17 tribal nations, and the District of Columbia. I have been reminded at every step that this is an extraordinary nation comprised of many heritages, with deep relationships to place, and with living traditions shared across generations and diaspora. These living traditions imbue our individual and community lives with a rich sense of purpose and connection greater than ourselves. Taking in this scope of traditions and communities from the unique perch of the NEA, our guiding question has been: “How do we best serve?”

Our Folk and Traditional Arts team works in service of people—culture bearers and culture workers—who dedicate their creativity, skill, and agency toward the transmission and respectful understanding of living traditions. During my time here, we have set ourselves in earnest to the hard work of amplifying the priorities of culture bearers and culture workers, with an eye toward building equitable support for traditional artists and source communities. We have also mapped existing infrastructures that deliver resources to traditional arts and artists, identified gaps in those maps, and envisioned how new infrastructures might be built to serve those who are not being reached.

Folk & Traditional Arts is a field that has been historically under-resourced yet highly resourceful. Meaning, over the past 50 years, the field has accomplished great things with modest-but-steady public, investment, yet little private, and philanthropic support. While resourcefulness is an admirable quality, it is dangerous for any society to expect its traditions to thrive without being nurtured. Yes, a desert cactus may blossom on the rare occasions it receives enough water. But what kind of cultural flowering might take place if our tradition bearers were given the space and resources to be aspirational?

There is an infrastructure in place that can nurture the roots. In mapping out the field, a national network is illuminated: folk and traditional arts programs at every State Arts Agency and Regional Arts Organization, many with a 30-50 years track record of relationship-building (fieldwork, or “showing up” in community, listening, building trust and understanding, building heritage archives) and collective impact (apprenticeships, cultural sustainability initiatives, operating grants for traditional arts organizations). And yet most of these programs have had static budgets for two decades, despite their remarkably long track record of cultural equity work.

That history of “showing up” was clearly illuminated by our NEA Office of Research and Analysis’ landmark report— Living Traditions: A Portfolio Analysis of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Folk & Traditional Arts Program —that quantifies how Folk & Traditional Arts is one of the NEA’s most effective tool at reaching the nation’s most underserved groups/communities whose opportunities to experience the arts are limited by geography, ethnicity, economics, or disability. While the field has long made a qualitative argument for the value and impact of folk and traditional arts; the Living Traditions report broke new ground by pairing the qualitative and the quantitative, which has generated new interest from funders.

That report, bookended by several significant national convenings—including 2018’s ACTA/American Folklife Center’s “National Support Systems for Folklife, Traditional Arts, and Cultural Heritage” and the NEA/NASAA “Close Listening: A National Case for the Value and Impact of Folk & Traditional Arts,” and the 2020 NEA/NEH/NACF “Native Arts & Cultures: Resilience, Reclamation, and Relevance” convening (the latter not being a traditional arts convening, but including significant presence of traditional artists), among others—helped to center the voices of culture bearers, while illuminating the impact of cultural workers and their host institutions.

Significantly, these convenings helped to transform the NEA’s grant guidelines. The Living Traditions report, which noted the field’s efficacy in serving rural, poverty-bound, and historically underserved communities, its propensity to serve Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities, while also leveraging strategic partnerships, was generative of two key published recommendations:

  1. Address the “gaps in the maps” of national funding and infrastructure, creating pilot folklife programs in the nation’s four most rural regions, and three of its most poverty-bound cities;
  2. Develop best practices and impact analyses related to signature folk & traditional arts initiatives.

The first of these recommendations resulted in the creation of the National Folklife Network (NFN), a new generational investment of $1,000,000 by the NEA to create the seven pilot programs called for in the report. Launched in 2021 through a cooperative agreement with the Southwest Folklife Alliance (in consortium with First Peoples Fund and Alliance for California Traditional Arts), the NFN launches publicly in spring 2023 with pilots in the Northern and Southern Plains, Rocky Mountain West, Alaska, Memphis (TN), Washington (DC), and San Juan (PR).

The second recommendation called for a national convening of National Heritage Fellows. In September 2023, the NEA—working through a cooperative agreement with the National Council for the Traditional Arts—will convene the last four years’ classes of National Heritage Fellows for a facilitated discussion about how to build a better, stronger future for traditional arts, and how to better serve source communities. NCTA will also hold virtual symposia featuring past fellows in ’23 and ’24.

Significantly, with the 2021 expansion of Folk Arts Partnership programs (the state folklife programs) to all 62 state, jurisdictional, and regional arts agencies, the NEA, NASAA, and the American Folklore Society launched a Professional Development Institute (PDI) to assist this critical subsection of the field—originally piloted by the NEA in 1974—in developing best practices, aggregating data about scope and impact, deepening the field’s goals of cultural equity, and advancing and growing the work of state folklife programs. This initiative launched at the height of the pandemic, and featured its first in-person PDI in Kansas City (MO).

One unrealized recommendation from the 2019 Living Traditions report: a longitudinal analysis of traditional arts apprenticeship programs. Originally launched in 1978 by the NEA, traditional arts apprenticeships have become a staple of state folklife programs and many culturally specific nonprofits. Anecdotally, these grants help cultural elders invest knowledge into future generations, so that traditions can adapt, grow, and flourish in the future. They are known by participants to be builders of self-esteem, wellness, and community pride, as well as drivers of artistry and innovation. While these programs have existed in most states for over four decades, a data-driven analysis of the scope, best practices, and long-term impact of this work has never been done. Yet, its results would likely reveal the largest collective effort of any nation to support its diverse constituencies of culture bearers. Some states/territories do not have apprenticeship programs, but most do, with many having cohorts of ten teams annually. So let’s do some conservative math: if, on average, each state has a cohort of five apprenticeship teams (that’s ten people x 56 states and territories = 560 annual participants nationally), and if each state invests $2K per apprenticeship team (laudably, the Massachusetts Cultural Council offers up to $10K per year to an apprenticeship team), that’s a national investment of $1,120,000 in sustaining living traditions). Considering most states have had these programs in place for well over two decades, that is over $10 million invested in apprenticeships per decade. If the number crunchers and the ethnographers got together to analyze this work, see how it impacts wellness, generational and social cohesion, and fosters creativity, it would be hard to justify not investing more into this work.

On that note, it has been encouraging to see philanthropy making investments in traditional arts for the first time in a generation. Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies has supported significant folklife work in Appalachia and in building new folklife infrastructure nationally. The American Folklife Center’s “Of The People: Widening The Path,” Alliance for California Traditional Arts’ “Tending the Taproot,” and First Peoples Fund’s “Brightening the Spotlight” demonstrate national impact and an impressive expansion of artists, scholars, and culture bearers directly served with financial support.

The field of folk and traditional arts looks different in 2023 than it did when I arrived at the NEA in 2015. The COVID-19 pandemic served as a kind of forced retreat from standard arts programming, and led to a prolonged winter of reflection and of building coalitions. One beautiful outcome of this is the National Heritage Fellowships film, Roots of American Culture: A Cross-Country Visit with Living Treasures of Folk & Traditional Arts . But a less visible, yet significant outcome, is the development of the Living Traditions Network, born out of a monthly Zoom meeting of stakeholders in traditional arts that banded together in order to endure the economic impact of pandemic lockdown. In some ways, the field now knows itself better, has built new relationships, gained new self-awareness, and formed new collaborations that have helped to break down different demographic barriers.  I like to think that our field is honing its own narrative, being mindful that the voices, faces, and aspirations of the culture bearers are the center of its universe. All of which positions the field to continue growing to a strong future.

Clifford 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.