National Endowment for the Arts' Support of the
Folk and Traditional Arts
The NEA's support of the folk and traditional arts begins with a 1967 grant of $39,500 to the National Folk Festival Association, later renamed the National Council for the Traditional Arts, for the National Folk Festival. Today, the National Folk Festival is celebrating its 72nd year and has seeded major, ongoing festivals in Lowell, MA; East Lansing, MI; Bangor, ME; and Richmond, VA. Initially, grants for folk arts projects fell under the Special Projects category in the Music program. With the celebration of the nation's Bicentennial in 1976, the NEA received a growing number of requests for projects documenting and celebrating American cultural heritage. Of particular note were projects such as regional folk arts festivals and statewide documentation projects. In 1978, the NEA created a free-standing Folk Arts Program with its own budget.
The NEA's support of the traditional arts continues, through grants for festivals, tours, artist gatherings, documentary and media projects, exhibitions, and educational programs. These project grants have supported activities that reflect the cultural, aesthetic, and geographic diversity of the United States. A 1985 grant funded the first gathering of cowboy poets in Elko, Nevada. That event, now known as the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, spawned more than 200 cowboy poetry events throughout the western United States and Canada. As a result of NEA support, conferences of Native American basketweavers meet yearly in Maine, California, and Washington, while early underwriting of mariachi conferences and workshops has led to a renaissance of mariachi training and performance in schools and communities throughout the West. In 1984 an NEA-funded film, The Stone Carvers, featuring the Italian sculptors who worked on the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, received an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary.
The Arts Endowment has also played an essential role in creating and sustaining a network of folk arts coordinators based at state, regional, and local folk arts agencies and other cooperating nonprofit organizations. In addition, the NEA supports statewide folk and traditional arts apprenticeship programs, based in large part at state arts agencies, in more than 25 states. These one-on-one apprenticeships play an important role in the preservation of endangered cultural traditions.
In 1982 the NEA began presenting the annual NEA National Heritage Fellowships. This program originated during Bess Lomax Hawes's tenure as director of the Folk Arts Program, beginning in 1976 and continuing beyond her retirement in 1992. The NEA National Heritage Fellows receive a one-time award of $25,000 recognizing individual artistic excellence and their efforts to conserve America's many cultures for future generations.
Since its inception, the NEA National Heritage Fellowship has become the most important honor in the field. The first honorees included the blues singer Sanders “Sonny” Terry and his frequent partner in performance, guitarist Brownie McGhee, as well as the Mexican-American singer Lydia Mendoza, bluegrass musician Bill Monroe, and traditional artists producing Western saddles and ornamental iron.
Other recipients over the years include bluesman B.B. King, Cajun fiddler and composer Michael Doucet, cowboy poet Wally McRae, and gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples. As the years have passed, the program has broadened the popular perception of the folk arts beyond quilts, bluegrass, and blues to include the musical styles and craft specializations of Native American and other indigenous and immigrant cultures, such as Ethiopian liturgical musician Moges Seyoum, Cochiti Pueblo potter Helen Cordero, and Cambodian classical dancer and choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro.
In honor of Bess Lomax Hawes, in 2000 the Arts Endowment inaugurated a special recognition within the NEA National Heritage Fellowships: the Bess Lomax Hawes Award for “achievements in fostering excellence, ensuring vitality, and promoting public appreciation of the folk and traditional arts. To be considered, nominees should be worthy of national recognition and must be actively engaged in preserving the folk and traditional arts.”
Bess Lomax Hawes sums up the integral role that the NEA National Heritage Fellowships play in the Arts Endowment's support of the folk and traditional arts: “Of all activities assisted by the Folk Arts program, these Fellowships are among the most appreciated and applauded, perhaps because they present to Americans a vision of themselves and of their country, a vision somewhat idealized but profoundly longed for and so, in significant ways, profoundly true.