If you’ve passed by the National Mall lately, you’ve probably noticed that it’s in rough shape. The lawn’s entire middle segment has been dug up and fenced off, part of a returfing scheme meant to keep the Mall sustainably green and open for public use for the foreseeable future.
This time last year, rumor had it that the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a National Mall draw since the ’60s, wouldn’t have a home on the grass for its Summer 2015 program. Stricter regulations passed by the National Park Service in January 2013 on the types of flooring and tenting allowed on the Mall and where bandstands could be erected had already ousted the National Book Festival, the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, and the National Council of Negro Women’s Black Family Reunion.
Since signing a five-year agreement with the Park Service at last year’s opening ceremony, the Folklife Festival will return to the Mall this year, albeit with a new strategy and in a different location. Instead of occupying the 7th-to-14th street stretch of the Mall, the festival will pop up from 3rd to 7th street, in front of the National Museum of the American Indian (below). And while most recent festivals have featured two or three countries, cities, or themes, this year will highlight just one: Peru.
“This is the first time we’ve focused so intently on just one program,” says James Mayer, the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage’s strategic communications assistant. “The main reason for this…is that we have limited space that we’re working with because our traditional home is under construction.”
The other reason? Sabrina Lynn Motley, who became the festival’s director in late 2013, is reshaping the festival’s identity, and keeping to one program that connects with other happenings on or around the Mall—-in this case, the American Indian Museum’s concurrent Inka Road exhibition—-might be a hint at the festival’s future.
“It’ll be a really nice overlap, seeing archaeological records [at the Inka Road exhibit] and then coming out to the Mall and meeting the people…who occupy that same space today,” Mayer says. Some of the festival’s booths and events will take place inside that museum and on its surrounding grounds this year, too.
In past years, outdoor tents have housed daily performances, but the Park Service’s new regulations prohibit the festival from setting up a large tent for the length of time needed for the festival’s set-up and duration. Concerts on the main stage will now be relegated to the evenings, since summer temperatures will make prolonged sun exposure without a tent an unattractive proposition for both audiences and performers. (There will be a smaller tent in the tree panel on Madison Drive for daytime music and dance performances.) Mayer hopes visitors will bring blankets and lawn chairs to the evening shows “like they’re at Austin City Limits or something.”
Since this year’s festival will sit on one of the Mall’s just-renovated turf panels, which are underlaid with fresh infrastructure, festival planners have worked closely with the Park Service to comply with new restrictions on where stakes can go and what flooring can be used. The extra effort has cost the Folklife Festival more time and money than usual; last year, Folklife estimated that sum at $350,000. (Mayer was unable to confirm the final cost.)
This year’s focus on Peru seems like a logical next step for a festival that’s slowly become narrower and deeper since the ’60s and ’70s, when there were dozens of programs from a variety of world cultures each year, instead of just a couple of themes with broader scopes. While the Folklife Festival is set to stay on the Mall at least until 2019, its exact location there—-and the time of year it sets up—-may shift even further in coming seasons, according to Mayer. There’s no word yet on what Peru’s three concession stands will serve, but a guinea pig dish would make for an apt metaphor this year.
Top photo by Darrow Montgomery. American Indian Museum photo by Flickr user dw_ross, Creative Commons license.
This post has been updated to clarify the festival’s tenting plans.