In its unwisdom the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has decided to eliminate the National Heritage Fellowships for folk and traditional artists, folding them into a general category of arts fellowships called Artists of the Year. Folk and traditional artists would have to compete against fine artists for these fellowships, and given the composition of the NEA and its panels, they wouldn’t fare well. The end result would be fewer, or no, fellowships for folk and traditional artists. These fellowships were designed to help save the traditional arts in the United States and now they themselves are endangered.
In 1978 the NEA established a separate division for the folk arts. I had the pleasure of serving on their folk arts panels from 1980-83 and again in the late 1980s, and I was involved in the creation of these fellowships. The idea, initiated and championed by the division's director, Bess Lomax Hawes, was to model them on Japan's awards to individual artists whom they deemed national treasures. NEA—Folk Arts formally established the National Heritage Fellowships in 1981; the first awards were given out in 1982. Every year, a dozen or so exemplary folk and traditional artists were selected—singers, musicians, poets, painters, weavers, blacksmiths, saddle makers, and so forth, representing all regions and ethnic groups in the United States and its territories. They came to Washington to receive their awards. In the first decade or so, CBS newsman Charles Kuralt presented them in a ceremony at the Ford Theater.
These awards were part of a the division’s strategy of targeting endangered folk arts for cultural survival, by honoring exemplary practitioners. It was hoped that the fellowship money would help the artists continue to practice their arts, and that the fellowship’s aura would uplift the status of the artist and the art within the community where it was practiced. They have been given out each year now for nearly thirty years; many had the desired effect of raising the profile of the artist and the traditional art, with the result that others in the communities recognized its worth and some determined to carry it on. This was one aspect of the NEA—Folk Arts division’s forays into cultural sustainability, based on the idea of cultural conservation through the arts. And these are the awards that a short-sighted NEA has determined to get rid of. Even though I believe, now, that there are better means of sustaining musical cultures than targeting endangered ones and singling out exemplary artists for special awards, I find myself upset about the consequences of losing these fellowships.
If Congress had threatened to eliminate these awards, opposing the cuts would be a straightforward act for culture workers to engage in through lobbying. But the NEA itself has offered up these cuts, and so those of us who would mount a lobbying campaign in Congress need to oppose NEA policy and ask Congress to restore the National Heritage Fellowships. Specifically, we are asking that Congress reject the edits proposed in the NEA 2012 Appropriations Request (p. 11) to the General Provisions within the Department of Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriation Act, SEC 419 (1), and restore the words “National Heritage Fellowships.” This would not mean increasing the NEA budget.
Readers of this blog who agree with me may act now and bring this matter to their representatives in the Senate. The paragraph just above has sufficient information to identify what needs to be done. The budget hearing for NEA funding will take place on April 6th. Several public folklorists, applied ethnomusicologists, anthropologists, oral historians, and others interested in cultural sustainability are engaged in this lobbying effort. Please join us. Now is the time to get in touch with your Senator and staff in Washington and urge that the National Heritage Fellowships be saved.