Northwest Folkife

Festál Turns 20

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For 46 years, Northwest Folklife has brought diverse communities of the Pacific Northwest together on the grounds of Seattle Center, the city’s central gathering space. Northwest Folklife shares these same grounds year-round with Festál, the Center’s presenting organization that works with 23 community organizations to bring festivals like Diwali, Tet Festival, CroatiaFest, Spirit of Indigenous People, and more to Seattle Center. As Festál Turns 20 in 2017, Northwest Folklife celebrates the ground-breaking, community-organizing work for which Festál is known.

The Origins of Festál

Founded in 1997, Festál began with 11 different festivals, all brought together under the simple, but progressive idea that the center of Seattle should play host to some of the many communities that call this city home. As articulated by Virginia Anderson, the Seattle Center Director at the time, the goal of Festál was to bring regional cultural festivals out of their respective communities and into a centrally-located venue where a much larger audience could see and experience each community’s cultural traditions. It was a way to celebrate who we are as Seattleites, and also a way to learn about our neighbors and to learn from our neighbors. Some of the original 11 festivals included Festival Sundiata, Irish Festival, Tibet Fest, Seattle Cherry Blossom and Japanese Cultural Festival, Festival Italiana, and the Northwest Folklife Festival. Over the years, more festivals were added, like Spirit of Indigenous People (2011), Live Aloha (2007), French Fest (2013), Iranian Festival (2009), and the newest member of Festál, Diwali: Lights of India, which joined in 2016.

Why Festál is Important

At the time of Festál’s creation, arts and cultural organizations were expressing and supporting the idea of diversity, of showcasing the many different communities that make up our Pacific Northwest heritage. For many arts programmers, this meant bringing on different cultural groups to a larger arts program that they curated themselves in order to show the patchwork of cultures that make up the region. Festál, however, worked with a more progressive idea, the concept of cultural equity. Whereas programming based on diversity can lead to tokenization, the idea of cultural equity requires the participation and guidance of the community itself. At Festál, the communities involved direct their own festivals, availing themselves of the larger resources of Seattle Center, but putting each event together of and for their own community. It was a ground-breaking program at the time, and it still is today, and it created a family of festivals and events with deep meaning to many communities in the Pacific Northwest. In addition, the fact that each Festál festival, including the Northwest Folklife Festival, has no admission charge and is open to the public means that there are no barriers to access.

How Festál Works

Every month, member organizations of Festál meet at Seattle Center to debrief their festivals, to learn from their experiences producing each event, and to discuss and brainstorm how to create the best possible cultural events in the heart of the city. These lively meetings are attended by a powerfully diverse group of representatives for each festival, each of whom is a respected leader in their own community and other communities. These leaders gather a coalition of community members each year to help produce a Festál festival, drawing on a large, evolving network of volunteers, donors, sponsors, performers, participants, master artists, and musicians and dancers. Each Festál event navigates its own community internally, and the end goal is not only to showcase that community’s cultural traditions to the larger region, but also to provide an annual gathering space for the community itself to come together.

The idea that culture exists all around us, in everything we do, is at the heart of Festál and the Northwest Folklife Festival. The two share a mission to engage audiences, and to provide opportunities for everyone to participate in and learn from the arts.