National Council on the Arts Presentation on the Richmond Folk Festival

Richmond Folk Festival

The following text is an excerpt from Lisa Sims’ presentation at the June 2015 National Council on the Arts meeting. The full presentation can be found in the video above.

I was asked here today to talk about how the arts can engage communities and how we can bring people together using the arts. Right off the bat, I just have to say that I do not think I can overstate how important the Richmond Folk Festival—and its predecessor, the National Folk Festival—has become to the city of Richmond. This is not just another festival for us. It is not just another arts project. We are a very arts-minded community; we have many festivals. This year marks the 11th year of something that has truly and dramatically made a positive impact on our community by bringing diverse groups together to accomplish an important goal: It has convinced Richmonders that we can do something together that is magnificent, powerful, and excellent.

Before I talk a little bit more about the festival, I am going to tell you a little bit about Richmond history. I think it is important to put some context to the overwhelming success of the festival. I think that Richmond is arguably the most successful of any of the offshoots of the National Folk Festival. We have 200,000 people a year who come to this three-day event. It is, by any measure, very successful.

To those of you who are not familiar with Richmond, Virginia—we love our history. We cling to it very proudly. We are very proud of the fact that we were initially founded in 1607 by Christopher Newport. We love to refer to Patrick Henry’s "give me liberty or give me death" speech at the second Virginia convention in 1775, which was done at St. John's Church that still stands today. The canal was designed by George Washington, and it still runs through Richmond. And it actually makes up a large portion of our folk festival site, which is adjacent to our downtown riverfront.

Our 19th-century history is not nearly as kind to us but remains deeply ingrained in our community. At that time, our economy was driven largely by the slave trade, as many of you know. We were the second largest port of entry for enslaved people. That obviously not only shapes the social issues of the times, but it is very much still with us in Richmond today. Richmond was also the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War, which is a designation that came in large part because of the location of Tredegar Iron Works. It was the largest foundry in the South and the third largest in the country at that time. And the site of the iron works is also part of our festival today. The festival documentary film series is actually shown in these buildings.

So we are surrounded by history, much of it divisive. Some still say we fight the Civil War every single day in Richmond. As with many cities in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a great deal of white flight to the suburbs and the county, leaving the city very landlocked with richer and more populous counties surrounding us.

It was with this ever-present history and our current somewhat divisive community that we, as a community, set out very deliberately to create an event that would showcase the arts and be a signature event for Richmond, and bring our community together. The National Folk Festival and the National Council for the Traditional Arts have a proven track record and a model of inclusion. The national prestige and community impact is what appealed to us in securing the rights to host the festival in 2005, 2006, and 2007. That community impact is still what drives the Richmond Folk Festival. Over the years, not only have we accomplished an inclusive successful arts event where everyone is welcome to sit at the table, but we educated our community about folk and traditional art.

One of our greatest challenges in early years was communicating what "folk" means to a very diverse community. Our frame was, “This is not all white people with guitars, this is not Peter, Paul, and Mary, and this is not quilts and banjos.” We worked hard to explain that these are artists who learned their art, their craft, at the knee of an elder, not from an academy. These are, as we say repeatedly, the best artists you have never heard of. We featured Mayan sun dancers and Mexican mariachi, Indian slide guitar, Hawaiian, Native-American hip-hop, go-go, Tibetan opera, Afro-Persian music and dance, Pontic Greek, and more. And that was just in 2014.

This festival has reframed the arts for Richmond. When people attend the Richmond Festival, the arts are no longer distant to them. They are not aloof, they’re not obscure. These are real people doing things that are fun and dynamic, and that is art. That message alone has been invaluable to our communities.

We are a community of old roots, but this spectacular festival breaks down barriers and pulls together people in a way that very few things in Richmond have ever been able to do. It is no wonder that we hear over and over that the Richmond Folk Festival is Richmond at its best and the best thing that Richmond has ever done.