The changes to the festival over the past few years have been rapid and transformational. The board challenged Executive Director Angie Schwab to develop a year-round arts organization that didn’t solely focus on the two-week summer international dance and music festival many are familiar with, one that that has brought more than a hundred countries and thousands of dancers and musicians to WNC, a festival that has inspired a generation of youths to travel and study abroad and form bonds with people from all over the world.
Because you know what? Folkmoot was losing money every year. Ticket sales to the performances didn’t cover costs. For more than two decades — and I have volunteered as a Folkmoot board member, board president, foundation president, and avid supporter — we drew down money from the foundation to support the summer festival and to maintain the Folkmoot Friendship Center. Many of us who held leadership positions with the festival thought its mission so important that we barreled on despite the financial losses.
There reasons why performances at some of the festivals was declining. The world has changed dramatically since Folkmoot started in 1984. Exotic languages and dancers aren’t quite as novel in this digitally-connected world as they were when the Iron Curtain was still a defining political symbol.
For years many there was talk of trying to transform Folkmoot into a year-round arts organization, something akin to the Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF). The challenge was formidable, but from all appearances Folkmoot has turned the corner. In the past year at the Folkmoot Center I’ve listened to acclaimed author Ron Rash speak about writing and even recite a new short story at the Folkmoot Center, I’ve listened to Buddy Melton of Balsam Range and songwriter Milan Miller play and talk about their childhood in Haywood County. There’s a series called cultural conversations, programs for youth, international dinners and more happening at the Folkmoot Friendship Center all year long.
“Everything has to grow and change to be relevant. And we’re not forgetting the legacy at all,” Schwab told The Smoky Mountain News. “In fact, we’re embracing the legacy and making it more precious as we go along. Each year, we learn more about ourselves and what we need to improve, and we make those adjustments.”
The arts are vital to every culture. Singers, poets, dancers, writers, musicians, and painters ensure we preserve our past while also challenging us to view this world in new ways. Folkmoot embodies that artistic tradition in its own unique way. The groups who come here each year during the summer festival perform traditional dances and songs that help tell the story of their country or region’s history.
At the same time, the interactions and bonds that form between the individuals from all over the world — including the audiences — who gather each year in WNC help build bridges between cultures that influence people for a lifetime. That legacy is one that this region should be proud it has helped sustain. I would encourage anyone reading this to take in one of the Folkmoot events, visit the Folkmoot Friendship Center, take part in this unique cultural event and help support this one-of-a-kind cultural arts organization.