This program offered a retrospective of the work of the Folk Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts since its establishment in 1974. The Program aimed to provide support to regional or cultural groups in our incredibly varied nation that need a little encouragement to remain themselves, to retain their uniqueness, to honor and revere their artistic pasts-presents- futures, to keep American cultural diversity and creativity alive and well. In that time, the Folk Arts Program had learned that:
• Folk arts are complex. Every report resulting from its apprenticeship program emphasizes that there is far more to learn than the neophyte has expected. The great guitarists, lace-makers, and step-dancers make it look easy, but mastering the art and the essence of the style is a long-term job that requires a serious commitment.
• Folk arts are culturally specific. In every multi-cultural urban festival, each ethnic or tribal group likes to demonstrate its own special aesthetic vision, its own particular artistic life. The single truly universal principle appears to be mutual appreciation.
• Folk arts are sophisticated. Each master craftsperson, each master musician, works from a tradition so complex and so artfully refined over generations that it takes the most careful documentation to capture it for our future benefit.
• Folk arts are alive. Indeed, in many places and among many groups, they are growing. It is true that each week - sometimes, it seems, each day - another old master is lost; it is that which makes the agency's work seem ever more urgent. Still, the young people are always with us, and they seem, at this time, to be reevaluating the past, to be learning from it, to be using it as a springboard for new artistic adventures.
To support these complicated, culturally specialized, urbane, and lively arts, the Folk Arts Program has tried to be quick and clever and creative; above all, it has tried to remain single- minded, with only one goal: to help preserve the very highest forms of the multiple aesthetic systems that make life in the United States joyful and exciting. Other programs within the Endowment endeavor to sponsor variation and creativity by nurturing individual talent, the private visions of the independent and self-motivated artist. Folk Arts has a different task: the fostering and nurturing of whole aesthetic systems. That these systems exist is enough to enliven everyday life in the present. Their development may well enlighten the future that awaits us. We look to the past to inform the present and make the future more elegant.
The 1981 Festival program featured a sampler of musicians who had received funding support from the NEA Folk Arts program or had benefited from organizational grants to community cultural institutions.