Case Study: Saving the Folk Arts at the State and National Level

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Robert Baron

Robert Baron, who teaches in the Masters Program in Cultural Sustainability at Goucher College describes how folklorists banded together over the years to save the New York Folk Arts Coordinator position, the American Folklife Center, and the NEA Heritage Awards. 

NYC Folk Arts Coordinator Position

In 1983 the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) decided to eliminate the Folk Arts Coordinator position. The folk arts constituency responded by organizing a campaign through a coalition, The Emergency Committee to Save New York State Folk Arts. This coalition included a wide diversity of ethnic and regional organizations from throughout the state, from within the folk arts field as well as other kinds of organizations representing culturally specific groups. The administration of NYSCA ignored the campaign while promising that folk arts would continue to be supported through its existing funding programs. They didn’t take the campaign seriously, failing to recognize the strength and commitment of the folk arts field.

The campaign made the case that folk arts required professional expertise to develop the field and evaluate funding applications . They also asserted that losing a folk arts position would result in neglecting and underfunding ethnic and rural communities. They wrote an open letter signed by more than 70 organizations and individuals, wrote to and met with elected officials, and brought up their concerns with the governor at a public meeting. Folk arts advocates got friends, family and neighbors to write as well. Elected officials representing the entire range of the political spectrum supported the campaign, including both Democratic and Republican leaders of the state senate where Republicans were in the majority, and the majority Democratic assembly. Support for the campaign was so overwhelming that it threatened the very existence of NYSCA. After several months of continuous protest of the elimination of the folk arts coordinator position, NYSCA relented by establishing a folk arts program with an initial funding budget of one million dollars.

American Folklife Center and the National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Awards

In the late 1990s, the Librarian of Congress planned to eliminate the American Folklife Center (AFC). Joe Wilson, Executive Director of the National Council on the Traditional Arts, drew on his own contacts and also got in touch with other people in the folk arts field who knew key senators to get them to tell the Librarian of Congress at a hearing that the AFC couldn’t be eliminated. The Librarian of Congress, who always got what he wanted from Congress, was blindsided by this confrontation, which succeeded in getting permanent authorization for the AFC. 

Similarly, when the Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts planned to eliminate the National Heritage Awards, folk arts advocates got a congressman at a hearing to definitively tell him that the awards could not be eliminated. 

In both cases, heads of federal cultural agencies did not expect that the folk arts field could garner the support of elected officials, and they were completely surprised when they were confronted at congressional hearings. 

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