You know the term "giant in the field" is probably overused today, but with Bess Lomax Hawes that might be an understatement in many ways.
I'm Barry Bergey, Director of Folk and Traditional Arts at the National Endowment for the Arts. I've been reading a lot of the messages about Bess today from many of her friends and colleagues around the country and many of them refer to themselves as Bess's children and that's certainly the case. Bess was someone who acted as a parent in the best of possible ways. She gave us guidance and she gave us feedback, but in a very familial way.
And I have to say that, indeed, I consider myself one of Bess's children as well. What she did is she established a network of folk arts specialists around the country and state, local and regional arts agencies and other institutions. And that was one of her particular, I think, acts of genius, and it wasn't accidental.
I often get the opportunity to look back through some of Bess' memos and some of her lectures and when I need inspiration, I do that ’Äì I've got a drawer full of them. And one of the things she talks about in some of these memos is the fact that when she was young ’Äì she was still a teenager, later teens going to college, she was in Philadelphia ’Äì and she had the experience of coming back to Washington ’Äì because at the time her father and her brother were both working at the Library of Congress and she said she had the experience of seeing the WPA arts and cultural programs disappear almost overnight.
She, in fact, at one point on her first day on the job at the National Endowment for the Arts she sat down and she says: "I sat down and thought to myself, 'Bess, you'd better work fast. You'd better think what you want to do and get on with it, girl... Thinking that way right from the very first day informed everything I did with a sense of 'you only have this chance for a little while.' ... Let's work as flexibly and as steadily and as purposefully as we possibly can and try to get as much done as possible because this whole place is liable to blow up one of these days. Everything does. There isn't anything constant but art and trouble."
And that was sort of Bess's attitude about it. She felt she had to put something in place in the government that would last and she went about that in a very methodical way. She established a network of folk arts specialists around the country. She developed the National Heritage program, NEA National Heritage Fellowships, a sort of living cultural treasures much as they had in Japan at that point. She developed apprenticeship programs that passed along the knowledge and the skills of traditional arts in a one on one way in sort of the natural setting of the home and community.
Another one of her memos that I encountered recently is one that she wrote to Nancy Hanks, the Chairman of the NEA. This was in 1977. This was in Bess's first year here at the National Endowment for the Arts. She took a trip to Maine and she went with the Director of the arts agency up into the northern reaches of Maine, a very rural area and she says in the memo that every time she encountered somebody in one of the local communities they said, "Well, gee, this is the first time that anybody from a federal agency has come to visit us. In fact, they said this is the first time that anybody from a state agency has come to visit us. And she realized as she went further and further north, and kept hearing these stories, that, indeed, in a way, everybody felt a little bit ignored without very much attention, but everybody she spoke with felt that this personal connection, this contact was so important and in an area like Maine where it's very rural ’Äì there aren't any major cities -- she realized that if folk arts was to be effective from the federal level, it had to have a network of people reaching out in the communities. There weren't major institutions; there weren't major not for profits; there weren't museums; there weren't symphonies; there weren't dance companies for the most part; but there were locally based cultural institutions and those were very important to the people. But that the job in Washington couldn't succeed without having people traveling out, reaching out, doing field work, discovering artists, working with communities, documenting artists, and making that personal contact. So it was her particular genius that put these programs into place and has made for an effective folk and traditional arts program at the national level.
I had the pleasure of having the office next to Bess for many years as she worked here as a Director. I was always interested in the way she responded to the public. We get many, many calls from people who are interested in funding and Bess would spend literally hours sometimes on the phone talking with people, individuals who might call, who might be interested in doing something. She always believed in a proactive program in folk arts because she knew there weren't the institutions out there often to support it. So she would reach out and spend a good deal of time working with people, counseling them on how they might develop an application or develop a project they had in mind. And I always felt that was the sort of ethic and attitude that she helped inculcate here at the Agency. She wanted to speak with anyone and everyone about their ideas. She felt everybody should have a voice. In fact it used to amuse me sometimes because I would be listening to Bess speaking on the phone and she'd be talking for maybe 10 minutes or so to someone and then I realized she was speaking to an answering machine. That didn't deter her from giving as much information, advice, and good counsel as she could.
I think that pretty much sums up what Bess was about.