Arkansas Folk and Traditional Arts (AFTA) is a statewide public folklore program of the University of Arkansas Libraries, supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and working in partnership with Arkansas stakeholder organizations and individuals, including the Arkansas Arts Council and Arkansas State University.
While AFTA in its present form is a new program centered on folklife throughout the state, the mission and initiative itself is not new to Arkansas. AFTA is building on the existing legacy of folk and traditional arts programming built initially by the Arkansas Arts Council. This work was continued through the Texarkana Regional Arts & Humanities Council, and then later, the Arkansas Folklife Program located at Arkansas State University. Arkansas Folk and Traditional Arts honors the hard work and fieldwork built by its partners and predecessors.
As a newly reinstated program, AFTA’s mission will evolve and mature as programming is developed. AFTA’s guiding mission as it kick-starts this process is as follows:
AFTA is dedicated to building cross-cultural understanding by documenting, presenting, and sustaining Arkansas’ living traditional arts and cultural heritage. AFTA develops and supports projects and programming for and featuring Arkansas citizens from all walks of life, with an emphasis on including underrepresented communities and traditions.
AFTA’s three points of focus (click each to learn more):
AFTA conducts regular fieldwork to document Arkansas traditions and tradition-bearers. Fieldwork most often takes the form of oral history interviews, photographs, and other audio/video recordings depending on the circumstances and wishes of collaborators. Fieldwork may be used for programming and publications, but a “product” of fieldwork collected is not necessary. Contributing to and growing documentation of Arkansas folk and traditional arts is a goal in and of itself.
AFTA partners with organizations and individual collaborators to offer or support public programming centered on Arkansas folk and traditional arts. Public programs include lectures, workshops, exhibits, demonstrations, festivals, educational curriculum, and more. AFTA strives to ensure that programming is open to the general public and both physically and economically accessible.
Whether fieldwork or public programming, the heart of AFTA’s work is sustaining and supporting Arkansas tradition-bearers to ensure that Arkansas folk and traditional arts can thrive for communities across the state. AFTA aims to provide resources and programming that offer support, skills, and training for citizens involved in documenting or practicing Arkansas traditions.
Defining Folk and Traditional Arts
Throughout this website and in AFTA’s publications and programming, you may see and hear several terms that appear similar:
AFTA staff belong to a society of folklorists who study folklore in the academic and/or public sector. The definition of folklore and its related terminology has a long and complex history. Though folklorists agree on the components of the definition, the term “folklore” has been difficult to define succinctly. The American Folklore Society has compiled a list of these varied definitions created and shared by folklorists over the years in the article, “What is Folklore?”. William M. Clements, in the introduction to An Arkansas Folklore Sourcebook, devotes large portions of the chapter to discussing the topic, but perhaps simplifies it best by writing that, “folklorists study unofficial culture.”
Folk art and traditional art, an important part of the study of folklore, can be used interchangeably to discuss traditions that are artfully and skillfully executed and communicated within communities. Folk and traditional arts could be seen as one component of a broader term, “folklife,” which serves to encompass the idea of folk arts (often seen to include only material traditions) with other intangible aspects, such as beliefs, customs, legends (inmaterial traditions).
Arkansas Folk and Traditional Arts takes a broad approach to studying and sustaining traditions throughout the state and may use the word “folklife” in programming and publications. Intangible traditions can also be considered artforms (such as storytelling) and often intangible traditions are intertwined with tangible forms of material culture.
For Arkansas Folk and Traditional Arts, Folk and Traditional Arts are:
- Rooted in Communities: Traditional arts exist in communities, which can include families, geographic regions, religious groups, clubs, schools, and more. Some folklorists call these different communities “folk groups.”
- Learned in Communities: Traditional arts are passed down and learned between members of communities, though new generations may add their unique twist to the tradition. Those individuals who practice and share their traditions are called “tradition-bearers.”
- New and Emerging: Traditions evolve and change. Communities create new traditions all the time, including new foods, events, festivals, sayings, jokes, rituals, and more.
- Diverse Yet Universal: Diverse communities thrive across the State of Arkansas yet all have their own traditions and traditional arts that are a part of the heritage and unique story of Arkansas.
Public Folklore Programs in the United States
Arkansas Folk and Traditional Arts belongs to a network of public folklore programs across the United States, though public folklore programs may be housed in various organizations and agencies, from arts council and humanities councils to nonprofits and universities.
“‘Public folklorists’ work primarily in government or non-profit arts, cultural, or educational organizations, such as arts councils, historical societies, libraries, museums, or organizations devoted specifically to folk arts or folklore. Public folklorists are engaged in a variety of activities, including (but not limited to) field research and documentary work, and the production of public programs or educational materials, such as performances, artists’ residencies, exhibitions, festivals, sound recordings, radio and television programs, films, videos, and books.
This mix of occupational home base and audiences has characterized the Society’s membership from the start. In 1888, the Society’s founding group included writers (Mark Twain was one of our founders), private men and women of learning, and museum professionals, as well as university-based scholars. But since 1970, “public folklore” has grown and developed very rapidly in the United States. At the time of this writing, about half of the American Folklore Society’s members identify themselves as public folklorists. However, it is important to remember that many folklorists work (or have worked) both in universities and in public folklore, and the two parts of the field are intimately connected. Universities, for example, are where most folklorists are trained in the ways of our field, and the public side of folklore work connects to general audiences in ways that increase appreciation for the field as a whole.”
For a list of public folklore programs in the United States, visit the American Folklore Society’s directory (external link opens in new window).
The history of public folklore programs in the United States owes a great debt to Bess Lomax Hawes, who made it part of her life’s work to establish a network of folklorists doing this work across the country. Learn more by reading about her legacy on Smithsonian Folklife’s website (external link opens in new window).