The Role of Intermediaries in Traditional Arts

Frances Phillips

October, 2004. Convened by the Alliance of California Traditional Arts, the Presidio, San Francisco, California

Convening a far-ranging group of artists and organization representatives concerned with sustaining the folk and traditional arts in California, last October the Alliance of California Traditional Arts' staff and board probed the role of intermediary organizations generally providers of services and regranting in its field. In spite of the gloomy funding environment that instigated the meeting, it was an upbeat conversation, filled with one-liners, such as Malcolm Margolin's, I grew up in a Jewish community in Boston where we practiced highly evolved folk arts, like the art of complaint; and the oft-cited, there is no such thing as a folk arts emergency.

But, as an under-funded realm of artistic practice that has been heavily dependant on the now-decimated California Arts Council and as a fragile field in a vast state, there may, indeed, be a folk arts emergency. Or there may be a folk arts emergency if the field itself can be identified. The gathered practitioners were quick to point out the elusive nature of their field, calling it, among other things: living cultural heritage, folk life, folklore, traditional culture, expressive culture, and art that is passed down within a community or family. This conversational theme grew more complex when the director of the state humanities council added to the mix his definitional dilemmas about arts and humanities, story versus field work, and expression versus interpretation. A Native American artist from the state's far north said simply, The English language does not convey who we are and what we do.

With limited resources, what should the state's valuable traditional arts alliance do? What is more important: immediate social consequences or institution building? building a statewide infrastructure or helping people engage in the arts in ways that extend beyond, even defy, consumption? setting programs deeply within specific communities or building partnerships across cultures? How do we wrestle with the tension between the innovator and the traditionalist, and between the values of protecting pieces of artwork and keeping a form of artistic practice alive? Why does a work have to be justified outside of its community?

Participants brainstormed the field's most pressing problems and adept facilitator that she is Melanie Beene called on everyone to cluster, prioritize, and choose among them until artist Frank LaPena suggested we were working in a way that countered the field's values. He asserted, Keep it open. Don't shut it down, which gave everyone pause. Someone mentioned and all present agreed that among the things they missed most about the California Arts Council's sunnier times was Asilomar, a great biannual statewide gathering that brought together 400 California artists and arts leaders from an array of artistic traditions to talk formally and informally at a beautiful setting by the ocean. We left the gathering with a commitment to the power of gathering.

Melanie Beene is preparing a summary of the ACTA meeting notes, which will be available through the Alliance of California Traditional Arts. For more information, contact