Photo: Trent Johnson

A Day in the Life with Smithsonian Folklife Festival Director Sabrina Lynn Motley

Before pursuing roles as vice president of Vesper Society and senior director at Asia Society Texas Center, Sabrina Lynn Motley was a little girl often wandering the halls of various Los Angeles museums. 

“Museums made sense to me because they were a place of learning,” she says. “But [they’re] also a place where you can hide out while your imagination soars.”

A professional life behind the scenes, tucked in offices within vast buildings housing art and artifacts, always made sense to Motley. After successful positions in programming and exhibition planning, the Smithsonian tapped her in 2013 as the new director of its famed Folklife Festival.

Delivering a cultural smorgasbord on the National Mall since 1967, the event focuses on global cultural heritage and connects people to hidden gems of society. This year’s theme is The Social Power of Music, and though the programming has been shortened from 10 days to only two because of the government shutdown, it’s sure to once again evoke emotions and conversations.

To learn more about the festival and Motley, we met in her tucked-away museum office and discussed her early enthusiasm for culture, the shortened festival and the responsibility she feels to engage minds.

On Tap: Did you always want to be in the museum industry growing up?
Sabrina Lynn Motley:
Yeah, I was one of those kids. I loved me some museums. I was one of those kids who didn’t like the circus [or] going to parades. My mother would say that I was one of those weird kids who you’d stick in a gallery and I’d be as happy as can be. My mother knew I was weird.

OT: Everybody’s weird to some extent.
SLM:
Yeah, but let’s be real. I’m an African-American woman of a certain age and I’m sure my mother was like, “I have this little black kid who’s into museums and into this world.” And to her credit, she let me go and explore it. I thank my mother daily for allowing me to be odd and curious. Not every kid gets that, no matter what color they are.

OT: How did you get into festival planning from a sociological perspective?
SLM:
That is a question I get asked all the time that I have no way to answer. I’m a cultural anthropologist by training and disposition, and I’ve done work in museums for most of my professional life. Before this, I largely focused on an intimate scale, so having this opportunity to do what I’ve done for many years with people who are so committed to this kind of work at a larger scale on the National Mall, which has such historic significance to this country, was a challenge that I wanted to take. Even on my worst days, there’s still something in the back of my head that says this work in this way at this place is really a gift, and I’m really fortunate to be able to do it.

OT: Was there a particular reason you gravitated toward programming? Was it a function of necessity or did you choose to go that route?
SLM: No, I chose to do it because I really like the way that culture brings people together and not always in a loving, peaceful way – because sometimes it’s hard. Culture has the power to connect and disrupt and make change – I wanted to be in a place where I could facilitate that [by] coming to the Smithsonian where there’s research and community engagement components, and a real sense that cultural heritage is valuable.

OT: Switching gears to this year’s Folklife Festival, it’s shrinking to only two days. What kind of adjustment period did you go through upon returning from the government shutdown?
SLM: It was not an easy call to make. Certainly, we know there are people that have been coming to this festival since it started in 1967, and their kids and grandkids come. No one wants to disappoint our visitors. I think in this case, we decided to put those relationships with our partners, our artists and the public ahead of just pushing something out onto the Mall.


Can’t Live Without
A hearty laugh with my mom
Meals with friends and family
Irish breakfast tea
Good movies and better books
Music, music and more music


OT: Was that always the plan to have the Social Power of Music and Year of Music coincide?
SLM: Yeah. Huib Schippers, who runs the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and to a large degree acted as the champion of the Year of Music initiative, has said publicly and privately that an inspiration for the Year of Music was the Folklife Festival as well as the Social Power of Music. It was a nice coming together of a lot of factors.

OT: With this year’s focus on music and the shortened calendar, do you feel any pressure to differentiate it from other area music festivals?
SLM: Probably no more than yes. We have a commitment to do the Folklife Festival and what that means is engaging community, being researched-based and stoking larger conversations. In that way, we have a commitment and the pressure to do what we do, even if it’s two days. People should leave knowing that they had a festival moment.

OT: I feel like all music can carry social context, but what specifically were you focused on when piecing together this year’s programming?
SLM: It wasn’t about genres or songs; it was really about the way music and sound functions. How does music create community? It’s a natural environment, it’s a social environment, it’s all of those things. What I was hoping was to have the festival break open those ideas and surprise people. How are people actively using music and sound to create community and to connect with community? How do musicians make change where they think change is needed and lessen tensions when they think that’s needed? Our job as festival makers is to explore all of that with our visitors.


Folklife festival Must-Haves
Curiosity about the work of festival participants and staff
Quality time at our marketplace and food vendors
A good hat, sunscreen and water
A quiet moment in one of the Smithsonian’s museums
Music, music and more music


OT: What were some of the best parts about planning this particular festival despite the timeline?
SLM:
The theme has resonated with a lot of people and in some way, we knew it would be meaningful. But the response we’ve gotten both from the artists and the public has been positive. It’s allowed us to link to all sorts of people in community. Honestly, working as a staff, we’ve had to manage our own internal disappointment and frustration over the shutdown. But the fact that we’ve been able to focus on these two days, it’s reminded us of our mission and the opportunity we have to do this wonderful work.

OT: How do you go about identifying themes you want to hit on?
SLM:
One of the common denominators is trying to be relevant because of the way people think of folk and traditional arts as something old, dead, gone. There are a lot of ways those connect us to a shared humanity, and I don’t mean in a hyperbolic way. I really do think the interweaving of history, knowledge, skills and practice is something that’s very integral to what it means to be human. For us, our notion of folk is broad.

OT: Would you say that the battle for relevance is one of the tougher challenges?
SLM:
Mhmm. And money. [laughs] On a serious note, you’ve got to fight for attention. Say [there’s] this person weaving this beautiful grass basket from the Georgia Sea Islands or a singer delivering a devastating hip-hop song from a suburb of Paris; if they’re all in the same creative continuum, we want you to stand here and be present with us on the Mall.

OT: These festivals are great because they take a piece of the museum and put it in a more palatable platform. Do you feel a responsibility to spark interest in and push more people toward the more traditional settings?
SLM:
We try to make the festival very participatory so they can have a conversation or get their hands dirty and make a clay pot. We focus on the reflection of our own culture too; it’s not just you go to the Mall and have a good time [and] then you leave. Can we set up these environments where people carry things away from them that speak to their own lives? It’s a feedback loop we’re trying to facilitate. We take a lot of responsibility and we think about it all the time. Some of it is you just throw the seeds out there and they’ll bloom five or 10 years from now, and we may never know it.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival takes place on Saturday, June 29 and Sunday, June 30. Features of this year’s The Social Power of Music-themed festival include Smithsonian Folkways Recordings musicians, Grammy-nominated rapper GoldLink, producer Ruby Ibarra and others. National Mall in DC; 202-633-6440; www.festival.si.edu