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  • Beyond January 6, 2021: What Future for a Festival in the Shadow of the Capitol?

    The U.S. Capitol building in the distance, with event banners reading KENYA and CHINA in the foreground.

    A scene from the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall.

    Photo by Francisco Guerra, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Editor’s note: In the fall of 2020, Festival director Sabrina Lynn Motley participated in the Salzburg Global Seminar entitled What Future for Festivals? She contributed the following thought-piece for the seminar’s final report, which was released in February.

    What follows in this thought piece bears little resemblance to my original draft. The first version was buttoned up and properly edited as befitting someone who works for a storied American cultural institution. It was an ode to creativity in the face of a global pandemic, simmering civil unrest, and a bewildering number of environmental crisis. Buoyed by my time at the Salzburg Global Seminar program What Future for Festivals?, I waxed poetic about the role of festivals in bridging, connecting, and healing. It was not prize-winning prose, but it was a sincere reflection on last year’s online conversations.

    And then.

    On Wednesday, January 6, 2021, I found myself in digital communion with millions around the world. Together, we watched with stunned incredulity a siege on the symbolic heart of American democracy.

    After hours of listening to pundits express everything from confusion to anger, my thoughts floated to festival-making. I admit that I asked myself more than once: “What is the point?” This was not just a philosophical question.

    The Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which is currently in my care, takes place on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Since 1967, every summer save one, we have built a temporary city on the same ground where Martin Luther King, Jr., called us to the beloved community. We bring artisans, musicians, cooks, and more from all corners of the earth to share their stories along with the work of their hands and hearts. We gather hundreds of staff, interns, and volunteers to attend to the needs of our visitors onsite and online. We are also a stone’s throw from the Capitol.

    The very spot where we pitch our tents was the gathering point for those determined to “take back their country” with a violent disregard for the common good. So, again, my question was not existential. On that Wednesday, it felt like a line has been crossed. Is whatever good that could come from a festival worth whatever pain that will come from putting people in harm’s way?

    Perspective was needed and quick.

    View of the west side of the U.S. Capitol Building, with a crowd of protestors heading toward it in the foreground.
    Black Lives Matter protest on the National Mall, June 3, 2020
    Photo by Albert Tong

    The arc of time is long and not always linear, but history is a willing teacher. Over fifty years ago, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival was created as a corrective for a country fractured by racism, inequality, and war (sound familiar?). Its founders wanted to make a point about who contributed, and was entitled, to the American promise. They understood that how we respond to the need to see and be seen, hear and be heard, would lead us to connection and healing or destruction and terror.

    Then, as now, creative expression and cultural production had a vital role to play. Festivals, with their ability to shine a public light into the crevices of personal life, can bring us to meaningful— that does not always mean comfortable—encounter with people quite unlike ourselves.

    To be of use, lessons from the past must be embedded into questions about what is to come.

    At the first meeting of What Future for Festivals?, Salzburg Global Vice President Clare Shine challenged us to think about our work vis-à-vis “radical acts of reinvention.” How do we reimagine programming that sparks innovative responses to racism, intersectional discrimination, and environmental degradation as well as ignites respect, possibility and, dare I say, joy? How do we create spaces of reciprocal learning and transformative engagement?

    The Salzburg Global program offered a salient reminder that the call to festival-making surfaces when we ask ourselves the kinds of questions that “inspire new thinking and action, and … connect local innovators with global resources.” It is here, as we face interlocking injustices and deal with our collective grief, that we find a resolute power—and, ultimately, the point—of this work.

    Yes. What future for festivals indeed.

    Sabrina Lynn Motley is the director of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

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