Circus arts have evolved over time to reflect changing social tastes and values, technological innovations, and performance styles. Immigrants from all over the world continue to contribute their creativity and skills, foods, languages, rituals, and other customs that enrich the circus arts. Across the country, emerging youth and social circuses and schools provide new opportunities for artistic expression.
Marking its fiftieth anniversary in 2017, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival brought the rich history, mystique and diversity of circus arts to life on the National Mall. But visitors could see more than just a performance—we took them behind the scenes to learn from generations of American circus families and contemporary visionaries who are keeping the circus arts alive and engaging.
The program hosted artists and coaches, costume designers, makeup artists, musicians, lighting and sound technicians, prop and tent designers, riggers, poster artists, wagon builders, cooks, and many others whose collective creative work brings the circus to life. Along with new students and celebrated masters, visitors could experience the many dimensions of circus arts through performances, demonstrations, and workshops under a Big Top tent and other colorful venues.
Aerialists and acrobats demonstrated their gravity-defying disciplines, combining strength and skill with grace and daring. Equilibrists and object manipulators shared their tricks that date from ancient times. Clowns demonstrated mesmerizing transformations, tapping into the human heart and spirit.
Circus Arts was presented by the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, and Circus Arts Conservatory Sarasota, in partnership with the American Youth Circus Organization, the American Circus Educators Association, and the National Park Service.
*No exotic animals were involved in the program.