They Should’ve Asked a Folklorist: New Horizons for State Folk Arts Programs

Posted by Adrienne Decker, Apr 28, 2016 0 comments

Following the 1974 launch of NEA support for state folklife programs, folklorists have led state arts agencies’ efforts to serve traditional artists of the nation’s rural, occupational, and immigrant communities. What are the challenges facing state-level folk arts coordinators in 2016?

Lilli TichininTo gain insight, I consulted three emerging leaders in the field: Lilli Tichinin, Program Coordinator of Folk Arts, Art Projects and Accessibility for New Mexico Arts; Jennifer Joy Jameson, Folk and Traditional Arts Director for the Mississippi Arts Commission; and Josh Ehlers, Assistant Folklorist for the Oregon Folklife Network.

These early career professionals cite a need for more interdisciplinary conversations and partnerships across sectors. Ehlers questions the standard funding model utilized by state folk arts programs. He sees programs relying upon funding they’ve always tapped into despite smaller pools, which makes new or more experimental projects harder to accomplish. He is excited to build partnerships with businesses that share similar community advocacy goals. Jameson points to the necessity of continuing mentorship and consultation: “I know I cannot and should not speak for all of Mississippi as a white, middle-class non-Southern woman. This means I am regularly bringing in emerging cultural workers from all walks of life and cultural backgrounds to help in documenting, supporting, and interpreting the incredible range of traditional arts in our state.”

Through dialog with mentors and community members, these folklorists leverage their training and connections to better serve artists and communities that may not regularly access State Arts Agency (SAA) programs due to lack of responsiveness. Digital platforms mitigate some of these access issues while creating new ones. Successfully addressing these conflicts is a complex task; the following perspectives illuminate the current conversation on the role of folk arts coordinators working within or alongside SAAs.

Lessons Learned
Jennifer JamesonJennifer: I’ve been fortunate to have my predecessors in close contact; there is such a rich history of public folklore and cultural work in Mississippi. Each of my predecessors left a legacy of deep relationships with a number of communities and constituents. I am lucky in that part of my responsibility to truly to be out in the “field” visiting and listening to artists and communities and asking them what they need.

Lilli: We are often in a position to negotiate the sometimes competing needs of artists, communities, the state government, the federal government, and endless other partners. I admire my mentors’ ability to listen to and understand the needs of each of the entities they work with and then translate those needs and desires in ways that the other entities can understand, finding creative and considerate ways to incorporate seemingly incompatible ways of being. 

Access and Awareness
The network model provides more access to resources and partners. I think folklorists’ role as a critical part of state arts agencies is returning; more and more see the need to have us in their ranks. The Oregon Arts Commission views the Oregon Folklife Network as an asset because we are able to offer them programming and access to communities they wouldn’t otherwise reach.Joshua Ehlers

Jennifer: I see my work as a public folklorist tied to the work of cultural organizing—that is, thoughtfully using the arts toward social wellbeing and social change. I am, more than any other program at my agency, working with artists who may not have always perceived themselves as “career” artists, although their skills are often at a level of mastery. I am regularly working with constituents who may not have or use computers or don’t have a lot of confidence in submitting an application. Part of my work is to make the process as accessible as possible to these artists and remind them that their work can often speak for itself. 

Digital Platforms: A Balancing Act
Lilli: We continue to function in two worlds—both digital and paper—in order to reach the state’s traditional artists. The balance is tenuous and slow to shift; in fact, I think that Folk Arts, specifically the Apprenticeship program, will continue to necessitate an ability to remain accessible and visible through multiple platforms. A specific barrier is the level of computer literacy of many artists. As all other New Mexico Arts grant applications have moved online, the Apprenticeship applications have remained hard copy, and I continually get feedback from some of the master folk artists that they may not continue to apply if these are no longer available. We have made the application more digital friendly while keeping the previous options in place.

Jennifer: There’s a sentiment that social media is “for the birds” but for non-profit organizations and public agencies like MAC, it’s an essential tool in putting resources directly in front of our constituents and increasing access. Social media done well makes the public feel an equal ownership with the organization. It also speaks to an issue of transparency: How is the Folk and Traditional Arts program utilizing public monies? Follow and see what we’re up to, then come participate! Not everyone has access to a computer, so this work cannot be at the cost of face-to-face time spent with folks across the state.

Learn more about how MAC approaches these issues with the re-launch of the long running publication Mississippi Folklife in a digital format. OFN recently launched the Oregon Culture Keepers Roster. Stay up to date with the New Mexico Arts Apprenticeship Program on Facebook.

This blog is part of the 2016 Emerging Arts Leader Blog Salon. We asked over a dozen emerging leaders to reflect and respond to this year’s Arts Leadership Preconference theme: “Impact Without Burnout: Resilient Arts Leadership from the Inside Out”.

Adrienne Decker is a member of Americans for the Arts. Learn more about membership.

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