AFS Highlights Marsha MacDowell, the 2020 Benjamin A. Botkin Prize Winner

AFS News

The 2020 winner of the Benjamin A. Botkin Prize of the American Folklore Society is Dr. Marsha MacDowell.

Photo courtesy of Marsha MacDowell
Photo courtesy of Marsha MacDowell.

The Botkin Prize is awarded by the AFS Public Programs Section and the AFS Executive Board to an individual for significant lifetime achievement in public folklore. This prize is given in recognition of the work of Benjamin A. Botkin (1901-1975). Eminent New Deal-era folklorist, national folklore editor of the Federal Writers’ Project in 1938-1939, advocate for the public responsibilities of folklorists, author and compiler of many publications on American folklore for general audiences, and head of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress from 1942 to 1945, Botkin has had a major impact on the field of public folklore and on the public understanding of folklore. Those receiving this award have contributed significantly to this field as well, and MacDowell is no exception.

MacDowell’s work is centered on the study of the production, use, and meaning of traditional material culture (especially that of Hmong-Americans, Native Americans, South Africans, and women). This inquiry is grounded in an interdisciplinary approach to material culture informed by art historical, folkloristic, and ethnographic theories and methodologies. Special interests include critical examination of the role of museums in contemporary society; development of educational resources and public arts policies related to traditional arts; and development of strategies to make collected data accessible online. She is particularly interested in developing research projects in collaboration with representatives of communities and cultural groups and in being engaged in projects that have a positive impact on their identified societal needs.

As director, since 1984, of the Michigan Traditional Arts Program (Michigan’s state folklife program based at Michigan State University) MacDowell has led or collaborated on many research, documentation, collections development, exhibition, publication, and education activities focused on Michigan’s traditional cultural heritage. She also serves as curator of folk arts for the Michigan State University (MSU) Museum and professor in the MSU Department of Art, Art History, and Design. A founding director of the Festival of Michigan Folklife and later the Great Lakes Folk Festival, she served as artistic director until its end in 2017. In addition to this Michigan-based and focused work, she has also been deeply engaged in projects of regional, national, and international scope. Her lengthy list of publications and exhibitions reflects this breadth of inquiry, covering traditions such as the quilts of Southwest China, Great Lakes pow wow regalia, and lau hala weaving traditions in Hawaiʻi. She is the director of the Quilt Index, a digital repository of stories, images, and other data related to quilts, quilt artists, and quiltmaking from private and public collections around the world. In 2018, MacDowell and Beth Donaldson founded the Teal Quilt Project, a community-engaged arts project to demonstrate care and concern for the children and young adults who survived sexual abuse perpetrated by MSU gymnastics Dr. Larry Nassar. The pair worked with Small Talk Child Assessment Center and the prosecutor’s office to confidentially distribute over 400 quilts made by quilters from around the country to these survivors.

MacDowell continues to find innovative ways to illustrate the importance and relevance of folklore to new audiences. She recently joined the board of the Cultural Advocacy Network of Michigan, a new “collective voice for cultural organizations in Michigan,” and is the only board member with a specifically traditional arts focus. Since the 2020 election, she regularly meets with freshman state legislators to highlight connections to folk and traditional artists from their districts, informing them of apprenticeship and heritage awardees who reside there or finding ways to connect the program’s history with the lives and experiences of these politicians. MacDowell models how public folklorists can advocate for their collaborators and the communities they serve. She creates and maintains deep connections with the artists with whom she works. She knows their children and grandchildren. She brings them into the museum collections to work on community-engaged scholar projects. She hires them to work at the Great Lakes Folk Festival, presenting their work to an audience of 80,000+. She does what folklorists (public and otherwise) should—builds lasting relationships of reciprocity and trust that reflect a spirit of community.

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