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Arts commission wants to up fellowship odds for folk artists

Rep. Cherie Buckner-Webb

The Idaho Commission on the Arts is looking to make it easier for traditional and folk artists to receive fellowship grants from the state.

The Senate State Affairs Committee on Friday unanimously approved a rule change requested by the commission that will give cowboy poets, saddle makers, Basque dancers, Native American tradition bearers and others a better shot at winning $5,000 fellowship grants.

“I think for a long period of time we were rather bigoted about what we considered an art and what we didn’t,” said Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise, who formerly served on the Arts Commission. “There’s great validity and a great value in those folk and traditional arts.”

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said he’s been a fan of cowboy poetry.

“Folk art is particularly important to our history and our traditions,” he said.

Arts Commission Executive Director Michael Faison said the way the five fellowships are awarded each year now makes it difficult for traditional and folk artists to compete with contemporary artists.

“The fellowship process tends to look for innovations, the new,” he said. “That defacto disadvantages traditions, which have to be looked at very differently. The work (folk artists) create is exquisite. But the process as it was defined was not helping.”

The new rules change the process by setting traditional and folk arts in a category of its own. The commission currently awards fellowship grants in three categories: visual arts, performing arts and literary arts. Each category gets five fellowships every third year.

The new rule will add folk and traditional arts as a fourth category. It will also add another $5,000 fellowship grant so that six fellowships will be awarded each year.

And instead of one of the three categories getting five fellowships alternating every third year, now two categories will get six fellowships with categories alternating every other year.

That means that folk and traditional artists will not compete against contemporary artists.

The Arts Commission brings in judges from outside Idaho, and their selections are given to board members on the Arts Commission to decide who gets the fellowships.

Faison said that the out-of-state judges recognized the skill of the folk artists.

“They would say: ‘This is absolutely wonderful work, but I don’t know how to judge it,'” Faison said.

Several more steps are needed by lawmakers before the new rule would take effect. If ultimately approved, the state could start awarding fellowships in traditional and folk art in 2020.

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