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History

The NCTA is the nation’s oldest multicultural arts presenting organization. For over eight decades, through festivals, tours, symposia, exhibits, and media productions, the NCTA has showcased the very best of the myriad grassroots folk, tribal and ethnic cultures that comprise our diverse nation.

The organization was founded in 1933 as the National Folk Festival Association. The name notwithstanding, the organization’s work has always included more than a single event. It was the brainchild of Sarah Gertrude Knott (1895-1984), a native of Paducah, Kentucky, and a woman of remarkable magnetism, vision and dogged determination. While Ms. Knott had no formal training in the folk arts, she had a clear and revolutionary idea of what she wanted to do – stage a national folk festival, bringing traditional musicians, singers, dancers and artisans from across the country to showcase the diversity of American culture. To accomplish this, she drew on folklorists, ethnomusicologists and other specialists who essentially invented the multi-cultural folk festival, and defined this form of presentation for many decades to come –utilizing fieldworkers, and staging workshops and crafts demonstrations.

The first National Folk Festival was held in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1934. The festival has since traveled to 28 communities throughout the United States, large and small, bringing the traditional arts to millions of citizens, and presenting thousands of the best of American grassroots artists, from W.C. Handy, Lawrence Walker and Hobart Smith in the 1930s to Alison Krauss, Michael Flatley, Doc Watson and Shemekia Copeland in more recent times. Along the way the festival has generated and spun off numerous regional and local events, many of which are flourishing today. The New England Folk Festival (1944), and the Florida Folk Festival (1953) date back over six decades. The Northwest Folklife Festival (1972) and the Lowell Folk Festival (1989), which were created by the NCTA and local partners, are among the largest events of their kind in the country, drawing hundreds of thousands of people each year.

The year 1970 marked the beginning of a transition and the revitalization of the organization. After 37 years at the helm, Ms. Knott retired. The association entered into a cooperative agreement with the National Park Service, and the National Folk Festival found a home for the next dozen years (1971-1982) at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. With a new program director, Andy Wallace, and a new board, the National Folk Festival was restructured and soon began to attract national attention, through public radio and television broadcasts and national press. The organization expanded its activities through its partnerships with the Park Service and the U. S. State Department, organizing overseas tours through the United States Information Agency’s Arts America program.

In 1976 Joseph T. Wilson became the executive director of the National Folk Festival Association, and a new era began. Wilson and the board of directors changed the name to the National Council for the Traditional Arts to reflect the organization’s expanded mission.

In the late 1970s the NCTA began to produce national tours of folk, ethnic and tribal arts. These tours have been both conceptual and educational, while emphasizing the quality and authenticity that are the hallmarks of NCTA productions. Since 1978, NCTA has produced 50 national tours that have traveled to 49 states, performing in hundreds of venues ranging from community centers and high school auditoriums to major concert halls. Many of these tours have been the subject of radio and television broadcasts, extending their reach beyond live audiences.

In 1983, the National Folk Festival returned to the road, and again reinvented the folk festival. Over the past three decades the NCTA has formed partnerships with communities across the nation to present the festival, free to the public, for three years with the understanding that the local host community intends to continue its own festival when the National moves on to a new site. This model has proved extremely successful. National Folk Festivals over the past quarter century have drawn the largest crowds in the event’s history, while spawning vibrant local festivals that have played a major role in revitalizing their host communities.

Over the past 30 years, in addition to festivals, the NCTA’s work has included a host of other projects and programs. Since 1983, the NCTA has produced the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowships. Its varied conceptual tours were a key factor in opening the doors of the nation’s major performing arts venues to traditional artists. The organization has worked with the National Park Service in all parts of the country to develop cultural programs and projects; among these was the creation of the Blue Ridge Music Center. The NCTA devoted 25 years to bringing this project to fruition, and curated the Center’s acclaimed Roots of American Music museum, which opened to the public in 2011. The NCTA has produced scores of recordings of fine musicians representing a diversity of America’s cultural traditions, as well as a host of public radio and television programs.

Since 1971, virtually all of the NCTA’s festivals and tours have been recorded, forming an incomparable, and constantly expanding, audio archive of traditional arts performances. The NCTA’s in-house audio lab has preserved and digitized over 6,000 hours of these sound recordings. These are now in the archive of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The substantial video archive is also slated to go to the Library.

As the NCTA enters its ninth decade, it continues to explore ways to share the cultural riches of our amazingly diverse nation with the American people, and to celebrate and honor those who are the keepers of this priceless heritage.