Success Stories From Around the Nation
Changing locations on a three-year cycle, the National Folk Festival has been held at 13 sites, and is now entering its 79th year: Peninsula, Ohio; New York, New York (one year for the Bicentennial); Lowell, Massachusetts; Johnstown, Pennsylvania; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Dayton, Ohio; East Lansing, Michigan; Bangor, Maine; Richmond, Virginia; Butte, Montana; Nashville, Tennessee; Greensboro, North Carolina and Salisbury, Maryland.
The National’s thriving offspring include such popular annual events as the 34-year-old Lowell Folk Festival in Massachusetts, the 31-year-old Flood City Music Festival (formerly the Johnstown Folk Festival) in Pennsylvania, the 22-year-old Great Lakes Folk Festival in Michigan, the 19-year-old American Folk Festival in Maine, the 16-year-old Richmond Folk Festival in Virginia and the 13-year-old Montana Folk Festival in Butte. Festivals have typically experienced a doubling or even tripling of annual attendance within a few years, and have an annual economic impact in the range of $15-30 million.
The city of Lowell, MA, where the National was held from 1987-89, expected a significant drop in audience after the last year of the National and was surprised by a 20% increase that put it on the front page of The Boston Globe and improved fundraising despite a recession. The Lowell Folk Festival, now in its 34th year, remains one of the best-attended folk events in the United States, attracting 150,000+ annually.
Host cities both large and small have achieved notable successes. In its first year, the Dayton, Ohio festival (1996) attracted more people to its downtown than had ever gathered there before. National Folk Festival attendance in East Lansing, Michigan (1999–2001) grew from 75,000 in the first year to 125,000 in year three, and laid the groundwork for the Great Lakes Folk Festival. In Bangor, Maine, one of the smallest cities ever to host the National, attendance increased 70% between 2002-2004, from 80,000 to 145,000; its successor, the American Folk Festival, continues to draw the crowds in this range. The 69th National Folk Festival in Richmond attracted a record 175,000 in 2007. This figure was surpassed the very next year with the launch of the new Richmond Folk Festival, which in 2018 drew 210,000 attendees. The 72nd National Folk Festival in Butte, Montana attracted 165,000, a number equal to 13% of the state’s population; surveys calculated its economic impact in southwestern Montana to be $31 million. The new Montana Folk Festival continues this success. Yet attendance and economic impact alone do not comprehensively measure success; the quality of the experience is central. Public feedback consistently affirms that attendees find the National Folk Festival both an exciting and a deeply meaningful experience.
The National Folk Festival has provided the impetus for creative sector growth, for the enhancement, re-imagining and re-purposing of public spaces in host communities and for building community. It is credited as a prime mover in the transformation of Lowell, Massachusetts from a depressed mill town into a desirable and culturally vibrant community. In Bangor, Maine, the festival was the catalyst for the transformation of a rubble-strewn riverfront into an activity-filled space that is now a city jewel. In Richmond, Virginia, the festival fostered a new, inclusive spirit of community that brings hundreds of thousands together downtown. In Butte, Montana, the festival re-imagined an abandoned historic mineyard and spearheaded its transformation into a spectacular outdoor concert venue.
The NCTA is still involved in the presentation of successor festivals in four former National Folk Festival host communities: Lowell, Massachusetts; Richmond, Virginia, and Butte, Montana. But local partners have taken over much of the work of producing these events – as planned.