Stewarding Oregon’s Diverse Cultural Life

By Emily West Hartlerode
Associate Director of the Oregon Folklife Network
Museum of Natural and Cultural History 

Connecting is at the heart of what we do at Oregon Folklife Network. Each year, we create opportunities for Oregonians to connect with and celebrate the diverse heritages reflected in the state’s traditional arts—from Coos storytelling to Mexican folklórico dancing to buckaroo saddle making to urban hip hop music. As stories of division dominate the nation’s headlines and COVID-19 introduces new challenges to our social and professional lives, opportunities like these have become all the more critical—helping to build, preserve, and strengthen connections across Oregon’s many cultures and communities.

Master embroiderer Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim

Established in 1977 and adopted by the museum in 2018, OFN helps steward folklife through four interrelated programs. Our ongoing statewide folklife survey identifies and documents traditional artists and other culture keepers around the state, covering a different region each year. Accomplished culture keepers identified through the survey become part of our ever-growing Culture Keepers Roster—an online resource for K-12 schools, libraries, universities, and community organizations wishing to produce public programs about Oregon’s diverse folklife. Some of the rostered culture keepers go on to join our Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, a National Endowment for the Arts-funded initiative that supports the passing of heritage arts from a master artist to an apprentice from the same community. And last but certainly not least, there is Culture Fest.

Culture Fest encourages organizations from a recently surveyed region to partner with us on programs that feature local, rostered artists. 2020’s Culture Fest, which focused on the Willamette Valley, saw unexpected challenges due to the pandemic—but those challenges didn’t stop our partners from delivering outstanding programs in celebration of local folklife. To the contrary, our partners demonstrated immense creativity and resilience, working with artists to produce remote, recorded, and hybrid digital programs that ensured continued cultural opportunities for Oregonians around the state.

Santoor master Hossein Salehi

One Culture Fest partner, Salem Multicultural Institute, turned its annual World Beat Festival into World Beat Wednesdays, a series of Facebook talks, performances, and demonstrations that featured five OFN-rostered artists. The series included a demonstration of Polynesian cooking by Tasi Keener, a discussion of Palestinian embroidery  by National Heritage Fellow Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim and her daughter Wafa, and a musical performance by Maestro Hossein Salehi on the Persian santoor (dulcimer) with his ensemble, Shabava.

Meanwhile, in Eugene, the West African Cultural Arts Institute (WCAI) presented six OFN artists in an Oregon Black Artist Spotlight Series presented through blog posts and video, and the Whiteaker Community Market collaborated with Eugene Arte Latino and Noche Cultural to present streamed Latin American music, dance, and other performances with commentary by four OFN artists as part of the market’s Cozy & Connected series.

These are just a few of the many innovative solutions our Culture Fest partners generated in order to preserve their communities’ access to folklife experiences in 2020. We are grateful to have been a part of such a terrific crop of programs, and we extend our deepest thanks to each of our partners for creating and nurturing cultural connections during such a challenging time.

Culture Fest is funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Oregon Cultural Trust.

Header image: Portland-based hip hop MC and spoken word artist Mic Crenshaw, a featured artist in the WCAI Black Artist Spotlight Series


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