After asking the public for — and receiving — a large increase in donations last year, the festival that has served for decades as an annual showcase for the Northwest's many different cultures and traditions, is back this year.
It felt like an SOS call. A month before roughly 250,000 people would converge at Seattle Center for the 46th annual Northwest Folklife Festival last year, its board wrote a letter asking the public an ominous question: Will the long-running Seattle tradition continue in 2018?
Without a marked uptick in donations, they warned, it would not.
“There was an uncertainty for awhile,” admits Kelli Faryar, Folklife’s executive artistic director. “I think what came about last year was a moment for the community and Northwest Folklife to re-evaluate the importance of coming together” during the festival and throughout the year.
While the pay-what-you can community festival just cleared its $350,000 goal for at-the-gates donations — a 58 percent increase from 2016, ensuring the event’s return this Memorial Day weekend, the fog of uncertainty hasn’t entirely lifted. Faryar is optimistically looking forward to Folklife hitting the half century mark, denying that the fest’s on a year-to-year basis. But Reese Tanimura, managing director, acknowledges needing to hit at least $360,000 at the gates in order to cover costs and confidently resume the festival next year.
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“There has been a little of bit of: ‘Well, will the festival continue? How did you do last year?’” Tanimura says. “The new challenge then becomes talking about it in a way that it’s not just year by year. It’s: ‘What do you value as far as making sure that those spaces exist sustainably and continuously?’”
Since 1972, the festival has served as an annual showcase for the cultures and traditions of the disparate ethnic communities living in the Northwest. Each year 600-700 volunteers and 6,000-plus unpaid performers come together to celebrate everything from Hungarian folk dancing to hip-hop and regional Mexican cuisine.
Even as costs increased and donation rates slumped (only about 17 percent of attendees kick in something at the gate), charging a mandatory admission fee has never been on the table, Tanimura says, preserving Folklife’s mission as an accessible-to-all cultural-meeting ground where neighbors can learn about each other’s traditions face to face “and not just from Wikipedia.” Over the years, cuts have taken their toll and organizers ask for suggested donations of $10 per person or $20 per family.
During last year’s donation pitch, the board stressed that the budget shortfall was not a “one-year crisis,” though the community response has given organizers a sense of security and “the ability to look at what kinds of things are possible on the horizon,” Tanimura says. A half-million dollar deficit that had accumulated in 1998 has since been erased, and earlier this year the nonprofit launched Our Big Neighborhood, a three-year youth and family initiative in partnership with Seattle Center. In August, the program will host a series of “Global Playground” events, featuring playground games, dance workshops and live music “rooted in cultural traditions.”
The initiative is part of Folklife’s push to (sustainably) expand beyond the festival and be more of a resource connecting different communities and organizations year-round.
“It’s the way that you want to interact with your neighbors, right?” Tanimura says. “You don’t want to just knock on their door, say hello and then never see them again.”
47th annual Northwest Folklife Festival. May 25-28, Seattle Center, 305 Harrison St., Seattle; $10 per person or $20 per family suggested donation, nwfolklife.org