The National Folk Festival Today: Community Collaborations

That the NCTA developed the multicultural festival in the 1930s is well known in our field. Its reinvention of the folk festival in the mid-1980s as a joint effort by local communities and the NCTA is not as well known, but is far more germane to our time.

Doc Paulin’s Dixieland Jazz Band performed at the 49th National Folk Festival in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1987.

This transformation began at Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area but came to full fruition during the National’s tenure in Lowell, Massachusetts, four years later, from 1987-89. It grew from the realization that the festival had great potential to be a catalyst for cultural, social, and economic transformation in American communities. This work has five major objectives: 

  1. to raise awareness of cultural heritage by bringing to the public an array of excellent artists representing America’s diverse cultural traditions; 
  2. to keep the festivals free to the public, thus maximizing audiences and reaching broad segments of the public, including the underserved; 
  3. to work at the grass-roots level in different parts of the country, fostering cultural participation and community engagement; 
  4. to develop and nurture new, sustainable traditional arts events and new audiences in communities across the nation, and 
  5. to build upon the evident connection between the arts, urban renewal, and economic revitalization, with the festival providing the impetus for creative sector growth, and for the enhancement, re-imagining, and re-purposing of public spaces. 

The National Folk Festival is the NCTA’s oldest event, and remains a central focus of our work because it enables the NCTA to achieve multiple goals through one program.

The National Folk Festival is awarded by application to a city that demonstrates an understanding of the central role that culture can play in revitalization and community-building efforts, the vision to imagine how this event can enrich and change their community, and the collective commitment and energy required to successfully produce such an event. The NCTA guides its host city partners in the building of an infrastructure that can support a continuing festival once the National moves on to another city. The cultural inclusiveness of the festivals, their central downtown locations, the demonstrated success of past festivals, and the fact that the event is free to the public encourages and attracts the support of local corporations and philanthropists. Funds must be raised anew each year, requiring a concerted effort by the community and the NCTA.

The NCTA and the host city’s priorities are complementary. The NCTA’s primary interests—presenting outstanding traditional artists and showcasing traditional culture; fostering public understanding of and appreciation for traditional arts; reaching new audiences, and creating new forums for folk arts—complement primary interests of host cities: economic impact; enhancing quality of cultural life and city image, and building community. The festival has proved to be a successful forum for both.

Having a signature event like the festival was a way to get people back downtown… In both Dayton and East Lansing, it accomplished exactly what the cities wanted it to: drawing tens of thousands of people back into the heart of the city.

Ted Staton, City Manager,
East Lansing, Michigan

By building broad-based community partnerships, along with a 700-plus volunteer corps, the NCTA is able to seed an event that is rooted in the community from its very inception. The participation of local and regional cultural communities in the performance, folklife, and foodways components of the festival encourages deeper public understanding of traditions practiced close to home.

The NCTA strives to create an entirely “new” festival each year, with no repeating of artists during the event’s three-year stay in a given community. While long known for its music programming, much effort has been put into expanding the National’s Folklife Area program, which in recent years has become an increasingly important and popular feature of the event.

The recent successes of the National Folk Festival are notable. Festivals typically experience a doubling or even tripling of annual attendance within a few years. Each event has an annual economic impact in the range of $15-30 million. But attendance and economic impact alone are not meaningful measures of success; the quality of the experience is central. Public feedback consistently affirms that attendees find the National Folk Festival a deeply meaningful experience.

National Folk Festivals embrace and celebrate the heritage and traditions of all Americans—from those whose families have been here for centuries to those of the most recent immigrants.
photo by Dave Parrish

The NCTA is working at the grassroots level, in all areas of the country with a strong history of delivering artistically excellent and meaningful programs, increasing cultural participation, and contributing to community revitalization and economic development efforts in sustainable ways, among other outcomes.

This work is labor-intensive. The National Folk Festival is built from the ground up in every host community with partners who, no matter what size the community, have rarely, if ever, undertaken an enterprise requiring such a high degree of community cooperation and involvement. Each festival city has its own unique local culture, outlook and issues, with different strengths and different resources, a new universe of personalities and politics, and a new physical site. The NCTA commits itself to doing whatever is necessary to ensure that the host community experiences success, work that takes every moment of the NCTA’s three-year commitment. The results are worth the effort. The National Folk Festival has consistently proved itself to be an outstanding model of “venture culture.”

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