In September 2018, the National Folk Festival began a new chapter in Salisbury, Maryland. The flagship event of the Maryland-based NCTA, the festival, then celebrating its 78th year, marked the first time in its history to take up residency in the organization’s home state.
Located on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, at the crossroads of the Delmarva Peninsula, Salisbury sits at the headwaters of the Wicomico River on land formerly home to the Indigenous Wicomico peoples. Settled by the British, the city was founded in 1732 and incorporated in 1854. Now one of the region’s largest cities, Salisbury is the county seat of Wicomico County, and the unofficial capital of the Eastern Shore—an area defined by its distinctive agricultural and maritime traditions, landscapes, and industries. A city of 30,000 residents, Salisbury is the geographic and economic hub of one of the nation’s fastest-growing Metropolitan Statistical Areas. Led since 2015 by its dynamic mayor, Jake Day, the City of Salisbury has diligently worked to build its reputation as an arts and culture destination, in alignment with its downtown development and revitalization efforts—and the opportunity to host the 78th, 79th, and 80th National Folk Festivals dovetailed perfectly with the how the city was reimagining its potential.
We pulled off our community’s largest event in history. We shone a bright light… on our city, as we hosted the first of our National Folk Festivals… $20M in economic impact… an unprecedented level of enthusiasm touching every corner of our community.
Jake Day, Mayor
City of Salisbury
A broad coalition of community, city, and state leaders came together to make the case to bring the National to Salisbury. The Mayor’s Office, City Council, Salisbury Arts & Entertainment District, Salisbury University, and many individuals throughout the city’s economic development, arts, and entertainment sectors worked together to submit a proposal in 2017, with the university’s Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art playing a leading role. The State of Maryland, particularly the Office of Tourism Development and Maryland Traditions, the folklife program of the Maryland State Arts Council, committed support and resources to the effort as well. Meeting with city leaders and touring potential sites, the NCTA was impressed with the city’s vibrant energy, organization, and collective will. From a competitive pool of applicants from around the country, Salisbury was selected to host the 78th, 79th, and 80th National Folk Festivals.
The National debuted in downtown Salisbury in 2018 with over 350 artists and 35 performing ensembles on 7 performance stages. The Maryland Traditions Folklife Festival, previously held annually in Baltimore since 2011, was folded into the Salisbury event as the Maryland Traditions Folklife Area, focusing 2018’s theme on the rich, living traditions of the Chesapeake Bay. The festival also featured a family area, a marketplace, and several food courts serving regional and global cuisines. Despite heavy rain throughout the inaugural three-day event, Salisbury’s first National drew upwards of 63,000 festival-goers, brought millions of dollars into the city’s economy, and drummed up extraordinary excitement among residents and city leadership for even greater success in the festival’s subsequent years. In 2019, attendance more than doubled, soaring to over 150,000 with a regional economic impact of more than $46 million, far exceeding expectations and launching Salisbury to new heights in its cultural renewal efforts. At that time, Howard Blumenthal said: “This year, the weather was perfect, the music was spectacular, [and] Salisbury doubled its festival attendance. The joint success was due, in part, to the wonderful vibe, but also to the presentation of one extremely high quality performance followed by another and another and far too many for any reasonable person to absorb in three days.”
Due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the 80th National Folk Festival was postponed in 2020, extending its residency in Salisbury until 2021. In the absence of a physical gathering, festival organizers instead presented the National Folk Festival 2020 Virtual Celebration (Day 1) (Day 2), an immensely successful two-day, live-streamed event featuring new and archival performances from many of the festival’s beloved artists.
Festival organizers, staff, volunteers, artists, and attendees came together again for the 80th National Folk Festival in Salisbury in 2021, with 91,000 festival-goers and a regional economic impact of nearly $19.8 million. As the first in-person event for both the NCTA and the City of Salisbury since the onset of the pandemic, it served as a major lift for the community and opportunity for extending one more year of the National’s residency in Salisbury through 2022.
Through five years of partnership, including four in-person presentations of the festival, more than 400,000 people visited Downtown Salisbury to attend the event. For the duration of the event’s residency, the National Folk Festival had lasting impacts for its partners—culturally, artistically, and economically—in the community, region, state, and nationally.