Support for Individual Artists in the Folk and Traditional Arts

Julie Gordon Dalgleish

The Fund for Folk Culture, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has initiated a series of gatherings, supported by a grant from the NEA, to examine topics relevant to folk arts and traditional culture. The first of those meetings was held in its home town at the Wheelwright Museum on March 13 and 14 to discuss the needs and concerns of individual artists in the folk and traditional arts field.

Sitting in a very large circle in a meeting room were thirty-four individuals as diverse and complex as the topic itself — folklorists from state arts agencies across the country, program directors from private foundations, museum directors, trustees from the Fund for Folk Culture, and leaders from support organizations for the folk arts. Especially significant to the discussions was the notable participation of practicing folk artists — a West African musician, a Santero from New Mexico, a Cambodian dancer and choreographer, a potter from one of the New Mexico pueblos, an Indian basketweaver, and a Puerto Rican musician. No doubt others in the circle are artists in their own right, but unlike the working artists, they also had the responsibility to wear multiple hats to this party.

The content in the more than fifteen hours of discussion was rich. Enthusiasm and many deep wells of experience pushed our deliberations into numerous topics — some connected, some not.

What struck me most profoundly was the quality and immediacy of the participation by the artists. And, here, I don't mean quality in content — certainly what they had to say was valuable, rather how they participated was as insightful as the words they spoke. Comfortable. Sometimes confrontational — always productive. With unstudied passion. Genuine. They drove home their points through the stories they so beautifully told.

Too often I find myself in meetings where decisions are made for artists, but where no or few artists are present. If artists are heard it is through special presentations or panels or reports on focus groups and interviews with artists. Too often artists are whisked away when decisions are made concerning their livelihood. Sometimes artists may be in the room — but the structure of the meeting or the physical set-up of the room or the unbalanced nature in the power dynamics of the participants can be intimidating, and frank discussions become a casualty of the environment.

I'm not entirely sure why the quality of the artists' participation at the Fund for Folk Culture's gathering was different. Certainly the staff established a tone, both before the meeting began and when it commenced, that created an atmosphere for democratic participation. Formal presentations by artists were delayed until later in the discussions, and the choice of conversing in a large circle contributed to the nature of the participation. What I do know is that had it not been for Obo, Charlie, Juan, Theresa, Dolly, Sophiline, and Cipriano I would not have learned as much as I did.

Some of the dominant themes that emerged through the stories, observations, information, and lessons shared included the following:

• Apprenticeship programs are the dominant model of support for traditional and folk artists. Generally they have been effective in helping to preserve art forms and train artists in them. However they are poorly funded. For many master artists, the time devoted to teaching others their art diverts precious time from income-producing activities or from nurturing their own development as master artists. There is also the danger of propagating one master's style if he or she assumes too many apprenticeships. The result is, as one artist said, “too much of the work starts to look like mine.”

• Few programs provide support through marketing, distribution, or strengthening presentation skills. Artists need assistance to help them promote and sell their work. The First People's Fund in Rapid City, South Dakota is one example of an organization addressing these needs. The Fund provides loans, small fellowships, and technical assistance to American Indian artists. When providing technical assistance in promotion, funders need to work within the artist's reality, advised one participant.

• The requirements of many granting programs are counter-intuitive for traditional artists. The design of granting and fellowship programs often reflect funding agendas that are not appropriate for or understood by traditional artists. Grantmaker “language” often makes no sense to the traditional/folk artist. Further, grant applications are usually written in English, making them inaccessible to some artists. While state folklorist and other service organizations work with artists to complete applications, the demand is usually much larger than their capacity to assist. Related topics include the overly prescribed nature of some grants, and a concern that organizational structures are often funded instead of the creation of art.

• Folk artists want and need to come together for a variety of reasons — to share work, to discuss needs, to seek solutions, to learn from one another, and in general to nurture community. Artists are looking for gatherings, virtual and actual. “A gathering model is needed as a complement to the apprenticeship model.” Technology may provide some answers, and exploring different concepts of physical space is crucial. As one artist said, “I've learned a lot from the other artists here, and none of them are basketmakers. It made me think more broadly about getting together with other artists or artist leaders.”

• Traditional artists rarely have a voice in shaping policy. “In policy decisions artists need to be present. There is need for a holistic perspective that includes spiritual belief, sense of time, and cultural protocols.” These viewpoints can be missing from policies in which artists are not part of the process of creating them. “Artists and trustees are not usually at the same table of policy discussions. Artists and decision makers need to know one another.”

• Forms of validation and recognition are valuable to folk artists. Beyond the NEA National Heritage Awards program, few fellowships or other forms of recognition exist for traditional artists. Not only does direct support help an artist in his or her development, but also fellowships provide important validation of the work of an artist.

• The idea of an “ombudsman” or translator came up in a variety of ways from grantmaking to sale of art works — a kind of informal agent for the traditional artist.

These represent only a few of the themes of the two-day meeting. By the end of 2003 the Fund for Folk Culture will have convened four different groups. The fourth gathering, to be held this fall, will be supported by the Brindle, Frost, and Rockefeller foundations, the Alex C. Walker Educational and Charitable Foundation, and the Rural Policy Research Institute. The information collected through these discussions will contribute to the Fund's long-range planning as well as to the work of individuals and artists concerned about the folk and traditional arts. To receive a copy of the meeting summary, contact Betsy Peterson at the Fund for Folk Culture,

Julie Gordon Dalgleish is program director, Bush Artist Fellowships, the Bush Foundation.