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Folklife at the International Level: the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowships, with Clifford Murphy

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A group of musicians and dancers on a stage.
The finale of the 2013 NEA National Heritage Fellows concert, bringing that year’s fellows and others to the stage for an exuberant finale. In front is Irish Step Dancer Kevin Doyle (who would receive a fellowship the following year) and 2013 recipient Singer, Songwriter, and Storyteller Sheila Kay Adams. Photo by Michael G. Stewart.

Our journey in the Folklife at the International Level series last took us to long-established East Asian “Living Human Treasures” programs for safeguarding intangible cultural heritage (ICH). As discussed, during the 1990s, UNESCO recommended to Member States that they adopt similar systems of subsidizing (or, at the least, officially recognizing) people in their own territories who “possess to a very high degree the knowledge and skills required for performing or recreating specific elements of the intangible cultural heritage” as a means for bolstering the transmission of ICH to younger generations and, thereby, helping to sustain it for the future. In a sense, such systems are both artificial and organic; in ideal terms, outside governmental support serves to foster natural ways in which living cultural traditions are taught, learned, and passed on within cultural communities.

Interestingly, it was Japan’s Living Human Treasures program that inspired a somewhat similar version to take hold here, in the U.S.: the National Heritage Fellowships of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Folk and Traditional Arts Program. According to the NEA:

The National Heritage Fellowships—the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts—recognize the recipients’ artistic excellence and support their continuing contributions to the country’s traditional arts heritage. Including the 2019 class, the Arts Endowment has awarded 440 NEA National Heritage Fellowships, recognizing artists working in more than 200 distinct art forms, including bluesman B.B. King, Cajun fiddler and composer Michael Doucet, sweetgrass basketweaver Mary Jackson, cowboy poet Wally McRae, Kathak dancer and choreographer Chitresh Das, and gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples.

In the late 1970s, well before UNESCO’s global endorsement, the then NEA Chairman Nancy Hanks raised Japan’s program in conversation with the director of the NEA Folk Arts Program at the time, folklorist Bess Lomax Hawes. In her memoir, Hawes recalls feeling doubtful at first about initiating something similar in the U.S., but from reading whatever she could find in English about Japan’s system, she became impressed.

Bess Lomax Hawes and Alan Lomax sitting, laughing
Bess Lomax Hawes and Alan Lomax, New York City, 1975. From the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Used courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity. Photographer: Ralph Rinzler

She writes:

This complex, multifaceted, and thoughtful system arose in Japan in the mid-nineteenth century, when a three-hundred-year period of national isolation came to an end and the nation’s doors were at last opened. This stimulated a headlong plunge into European-influenced modernization, which in turn raised fears that the older, peculiarly Japanese art forms […] might be shoved aside, allowed (or encouraged) to degenerate, or be forgotten. Clearly this was a matter of national concern, for the response of the Japanese people to these fears was to devise a truly remarkable structure of cultural statesmanship. [The program] has had powerful effects in its own country and has set high standards for the rest of the world.

Ultimately, Hawes (and those with whom she worked) was successful: in 1980, the new NEA National Heritage Fellowships program was announced, with the first Fellowships bestowed upon fifteen traditional artists in 1982. It is important to note that in contrast with Japan’s Living Human Treasures system, the NEA National Heritage Fellowships represents a one-time, “lifetime achievement award,” which in recent years includes an award of $25,000 and two public events at which recipients are honored.

Unsurprisingly, however, there were challenges – both conceptual and practical – in the lead up to its establishment that bring to light complex issues at the heart of any intervention into safeguarding and promoting “folklife” and “ICH” – then and now. For instance, through consultations with Folk Arts Program advisory panels in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hawes notes in her memoir that “interesting objections” were raised, leading to significant debate. She recounts:

Folk Arts, [the panelists] pointed out, are above all the cultural possessions of groups rather than of individuals, whether those groups affiliate themselves by virtue of sharing a religion, occupation, ethnicity, geographical area, language, or any other common factor […] How could one even begin to ascertain the number of groups that should be considered in such a program? How could one begin to locate them? […] Then, since the traditional art forms have generally been developed by vast numbers of people over time within each group, who was going to say which individual practitioner should be the particular one honored?

In one document, Notes on Discussion of Heritage Awards at the Folk Arts program Policy Meeting (August 13-14, 1981), it appears that participants were concerned that only “famous” traditional artists will be honored, and so the possibility of “shy flowers” was brought up: that is, people “who were not widely known […] and after some discussion, the panel seemed to agree that both widely-known artists and those who were only appreciated in their own communities should be recognized by the Heritage Award” (original emphasis).

A woman plays the button accordion and smiles.
2017 National Heritage Fellow Eva Ybarra plays in the Library of Congress Coolidge Auditorium, September 2017. Ybarra is a conjunto bandleader and accordionist from San Antonio, Texas. Photo by Stephen Winick.

Indeed, these are questions and concerns (among many others!) that folklorists and heritage professionals alike still grapple with today, and they reflect the complicated nature of selecting and valorizing cultural heritage, as examined throughout this series. Whether through UNESCO’s international lists or national and local-level awards and honors, the challenge is to enhance access to these resources – as that is what they effectively are – in the most inclusive and equitable ways possible.

Luckily, we have the opportunity to learn about how such issues are addressed with respect to the National Heritage Fellowships program from the current director of folk and traditional arts at the NEA, ethnomusicologist and folklorist Clifford Murphy. Since 2015, he oversees the NEA’s grantmaking in folk and traditional arts, and manages the NEA National Heritage Fellowships.

A man stands at a podium speaking into two small microphones
Clifford Murphy speaks at the 2016 National Heritage Fellows award ceremony, held in the Library of Congress Coolidge Auditorium, September 2016. Photo by Stephen Winick.

Michelle Stefano: Hello, Cliff. Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. I’ll start with what the main purpose of the National Heritage Fellowships program is, in your view?

Clifford Murphy: The mission of the program is to recognize artistic excellence, lifetime achievement, and contributions to our nation’s traditional arts heritage. Part of the program’s purpose is to reflect on the cultural traditions – and the individuals that drive them – that make this country distinct and that give our lives meaning. People like the Staples Singers (Roebuck “Pops” Staples and his daughter, Mavis Staples, are both past recipients) have shaped an entire genre of American music; they have articulated the emotional and sacred lives of particular communities, and they have enriched the lives of so many people beyond their “home” communities. The National Heritage Fellowship is an acknowledgement of this achievement. Yet, we are also acknowledging the cultural communities from which these individuals – and the traditions they uphold – emerged.

In terms of what the award really does, it puts money into the pockets of the artists; it shows that their art has been recognized at the highest level, and it can serve as a form of validation. I have met a number of Heritage Fellows who felt compelled to rededicate themselves to their craft, or to sustaining their traditions, only after receiving the Fellowship. It puts wind in their sails.

MS: How are decisions about each year’s Fellows made?

CM: Good question. Every National Heritage Fellow was nominated by the public. Their nomination was reviewed by a panel of cultural experts (including past Heritage Fellows and cultural heritage scholars), and then was approved by the National Council on the Arts (the advisory body of the NEA) and finally the NEA Chairman. In other words, there’s an actual process, and not a smoky back room. If there is a significant traditional artist you are aware of who has never received a National Heritage Fellowship, odds are good that they were never nominated. That’s not to say this isn’t a competitive program – it is extremely competitive, and it is extraordinarily diverse (culturally, geographically, by genre, etc.). We invite a review panel into the process that encompasses a very broad range of expertise, geography, and cultural perspectives (this is true of all of our panels at the NEA). Regarding the equity and diversity of the nomination pool, we work hard to promote the nomination deadline each year, and we do outreach consistently to try to address gaps. In other words, if particular traditions, geographies, or cultural communities have been historically underrepresented, we do outreach to encourage nominations in these areas, with the caveat that outreach does not guarantee someone will receive recognition.

Senator Lisa Murkowski places a ribbon around the neck of Clarissa Rizal
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska bestows the National Heritage Fellowship medal on Clarissa Rizal in the Library of Congress Coolidge Auditorium, September, 2016. Rizal is a chilkat blanket weaver and member of the Raven T’akDein Taan (black-legged kittiwake) Clan of Hoonah/Glacier Bay, Alaska. She passed away in December 2016. Photo by Stephen Winick.

MS: What are the most pressing challenges you face with respect to this program?

CM: In a number of ways, the biggest challenge is time. With only nine Fellowships a year, it takes time for the fullness of cultural life in the U.S. to be reflected in this program. It takes time to build relationships and networks that can result in effective and successful nominations. Since 1982, there have been just north of 425 National Heritage Fellows, so in a nation of over 320 million people, it takes time for any one individual to receive this recognition. It also takes time to articulate new or emergent traditions, or for certain cultural practices (or practitioners) to be acknowledged as “traditional.”

As a case in point, Bill Monroe – widely acknowledged as the “father of bluegrass” – received a National Heritage Fellowship in 1982. At that point, bluegrass had only existed as a musical style for 40 years. It sounded older than it really was. We are roughly 40 years into the evolution of hip-hop – a tradition that sounds newer than it really is – and it will be interesting to see when the Bill Monroe(s) of hip-hop are nominated for a National Heritage Fellowship. This year, Linda Goss – ostensibly one of the Bill Monroes of the Black Storyteller tradition – became the first African-American performative storyteller to receive the National Heritage Fellowship. Her branch of the storytelling tradition is about a half-century old; its inclusion on the rolls of traditions recognized with a National Heritage Fellowship is significant. The National Association of Black Storytellers was co-founded by Linda in 1982, at which point it was already a few decades old and had developed its own distinct traditions, functions, and forms of practice. Of course, traditions such as this do not need outside validation in order to be dynamic and deeply meaningful at a community level, but the inclusion of a pioneer in the Black Storyteller movement on the rolls of the National Heritage Fellowships is certainly welcome.

Linda Goss holds a cowbell in her right hand and gestures with her left.
Linda Goss of Baltimore, Maryland, is a co-founder of the National Association of Black Storytellers and a recipient of a 2019 National Heritage Fellowship. Photo by Edwin Remsberg.

MS: In an ideal world, how would any part of the Fellows program and process be enhanced?

CM: In an ideal world, the public – I mean everybody – would look forward to the announcement of the Heritage Fellows annually. In any given year, the nine Fellows represent a remarkable snapshot of who we are as a community of communities. Personally, I find it moving and affirming of the ideals of the country, as outlined in the legislation that created the American Folklife Center during the bicentennial:

(1) that the diversity inherent in American folklife has contributed greatly to the cultural richness of the Nation and has fostered a sense of individuality and identity among the American people;

(2) that the history of the United States effectively demonstrates that building a strong nation does not require the sacrifice of cultural differences; and

(3) that American folklife has a fundamental influence on the desires, beliefs, values, and character of the American people.

So, that’s the big “ideal world” reaction from me.

On a more granular level, we are interested in learning more about how the National Heritage Fellowships impact individual recipients and their respective traditions (and communities). We have a great deal of anecdotal evidence that demonstrates how lives are transformed by this award, how traditions are fortified, and how legacy programs are developed in the name of Fellows. The Arts Endowment published some stories about this in NEA Arts Magazine in 2017. To my eyes, the impact and legacy of the Heritage Fellowship is most pronounced in the story of Tewa language advocate and 2006 National Heritage Fellow Esther Martinez, who was the inspiration for the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act. You can also see it in Charleston, South Carolina, where a public school – including the aesthetic design of the building – reflects the legacy of blacksmith and 1982 National Heritage Fellow, Phillip Simmons. Understanding the relationship between the National Heritage Fellowships, and the network of legacy programs and institutions they have inspired, can tell a powerful story of the value of these kinds of honorific programs. Such a study might also illuminate networks of folklife organizations of which we may not currently be aware.

One last thing: ideally, all residents of this country will see their heritage reflected in the National Heritage Fellowships program over time. If people look at the list of past and current recipients and do not see their heritage reflected, or find that their most cherished traditions have yet to be honored, the only remedy is to make a nomination. The public has a direct course of action – these Fellowships are all the result of such action. Again, every single Fellow since 1982 was nominated by the public.

Michael Doucet cradles his violin.
2005 National Heritage Fellow Michael Doucet returned in September 2018 to play at the awards ceremony in the Library of Congress Coolidge Auditorium. Photo by Stephen Winick.

MS: How does the Folk and Traditional Arts Program keep in touch with past Fellows?

CM: This is a challenge we have been working to address. We have also been fortunate to have collaborators at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, who have regularly produced programs celebrating past and present Heritage Fellows. In addition, the National Council for the Traditional Arts frequently includes Heritage Fellows in festivals like the National Folk Festival, and during these events, we have an opportunity to re-engage with Fellows.

Following his retirement from the NEA, my predecessor, Barry Bergey, and photographer Tom Pich published the book, Folk Masters: A Portrait of America, which is a collection of Tom Pich’s remarkable portraits of the National Heritage Fellows. Likewise, folklorist Alan Govenar has maintained a remarkable online resource of information about the National Heritage Fellows called, Masters of Traditional Arts, and recently produced a documentary film about the Fellows as well.

While those projects are each stunning in their own right, they are independent of the NEA. In an agency as lean as ours, we do not have a formal office of engagement with past National Heritage Fellows, the way that a Hall of Fame might. However, we do work to maintain relationships with the Fellows after their honorific events in Washington, DC. For instance, each year, we have at least one past Heritage Fellow (usually two) serve on the panel that reviews and recommends nominations for the new class of Fellows. This makes it a peer-review process. We also have a past Fellow perform as part of the medal ceremony at the Library of Congress – recently, that has included Irish fiddler Liz Carroll, Lakota flute player and hoop dancer Kevin Locke, Cajun fiddler Michael Doucet, and Trinidadian steel pan musician/composer/maker Ellie Mannette.

Ellie Mannette, seated on a stool, plays steel drums
The late Elliott “Ellie” Mannette, a Trinidad-born musician and instrument maker who lived in West Virginia, was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship in 1999 and returned in 2017 to play at the awards ceremony in the Library of Congress Coolidge Auditorium. He passed away in 2018. Photo by Stephen Winick, September 2017.

Lastly, we typically have a past Fellow make a welcoming address to the new group of Fellows when they are celebrated here, in Washington. This has included Penobscot basketmaker Theresa Secord and Singing & Praying Bands’ member Anthony Johnson. Encounters between past and present Fellows is a powerful thing to behold.

Thanks, again, Cliff! For more information about the National Heritage Fellowships and this year’s class of recipients and related events, please visit the NEA webpage here.

Clifford Murphy (far left) joins the 2018 National Heritage Fellows onstage in the Library of Congress Coolidge Auditorium during the awards ceremony. September 2018. Photo by Stephen Winick.

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