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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

Photo: Taste of Reston

Your Guide To DC’s Neighborhood Festivals

The diverse neighborhoods of DC, Maryland and Virginia are ready to showcase all they have to offer now through the fall. Food, drink, art, dance and music abound in every corner of the DC area, giving you an excuse to check out a new pocket of your extended neighborhood every weekend. Read on to get the inside scoop on some of our staff picks for the 2019 festival season.

SATURDAY, MAY 11

Funk Parade
Funk Parade celebrates DC’s vibrant music and arts, the history of Black Broadway, and the spirit of funk that brings DC together. From the first year in 2014 to now, hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians from all corners of the District have come together for Funk Parade. This year’s event features countless acts such as the Chuck Brown Band, Michelle Blackwell, Reesa Renee and more. Festivities begin at 1 p.m. Free to attend.Along U Street in NW, DC; www.funkparade.com

SATURDAY, MAY 11 – SUNDAY, MAY 12

Bethesda Fine Arts Festival
This year’s Bethesda Fine Arts festival features 130 artists in various genres including live rock, jazz and reggae music. Walk through the festival and peruse unique jewelry, clothing and furniture on display. Then stop by local restaurants to enjoy pizza, barbecue, sandwiches and ice cream. Saturday from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Free to attend. Bethesda’s Woodmont Triangle: Along Norfolk, Auburn and Del Ray Avenues in Bethesda, MD; www.bethesda.org

SATURDAY, MAY 18 – SUNDAY, MAY 19

Quarterfest
Enjoy a food, beer and wine festival showcasing the diversity of Arlington’s food scene as Taste of Arlington becomes Quarterfest. This festival transforms Wilson Boulevard into a vibrant dining, shopping and family-fun festival for all ages. Experience a restaurant crawl showcasing eateries of the neighborhood and an extended two-day outdoor concert and pop-up street pub. 12-6 p.m. Free to attend, but tickets ($46.35-$123.60) are required for food and drinks. Wilson Boulevard between N. Taylor and N. Quincy Streets; www.quarterfestballston.org

SUNDAY, MAY 19

Old Town Festival of Speed and Style
The lower three blocks of King Street will be blocked off and vintage cars from the 50s, 60s, 70s and select luxury race cars will be there. Join special fashion events and pop-ups around Old Town that make the event great for everyone. All proceeds will benefit charity partner ACT for Alexandria, a community foundation focused on increasing charitable investment and community engagement. Festivities begin at 10 a.m. Free to attend. 200 King St. Alexandria, VA; www.festivalspeedstylealex.com

SATURDAY, MAY 25 – MONDAY, MAY 27

Rockville Hometown Holidays
Enjoy several dozen live performances on four different stages featuring rock, reggae, country and Americana artists. There will be marching bands, floats and more. The Memorial Day Parade starts at 10:30 a.m. Various times. Free to attend. Rockville Town Square: 30 Maryland Ave. Rockville, MD; www.rockvillemd.gov

THURSDAY, MAY 30 – SunDAY, JUNE 2

Herndon Festival
The Herndon Festival takes place in historic downtown Herndon and attracts an average of 80,000 people each year. This outdoor festival provides a fun-filled experience by combining the joy of an outdoor concert with the thrill of a summertime carnival. There’s something for everyone. Thursday 6-10 p.m. Friday 5-11 p.m. Saturday 10 a.m. – 11 p.m. Sunday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Free. www.herndonfestival.net

FRIDAY, JUNE 7 – SUNDAY, JUNE 9

Celebrate Fairfax!
This annual festival features concerts on eight different stages with headliners like Better Than Ezra, Smash Mouth and more. The festival features an abundance of other attractions like a petting zoo, carnival rides and a karaoke championship along with nightly fireworks and plenty of great food. Friday 6 p.m. – midnight, Saturday 10 a.m. – midnight and Sunday 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. Various ticket packages and admission prices available. Fairfax County Government Center: 12000 Government Center Pkwy. Fairfax, VA; www.celebratefairfax.com

FRIDAY, JUNE 14 – SATURDAY, JUNE 15

Taste of Reston
Taste of Reston, produced by the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce, is the largest outdoor food festival in the area and was voted Northern Virginia’s Best Food Festival multiple times in recent years by Virginia Living. Reston Town Center will host the event’s restaurants and community vendors, plus live entertainment on three stages. Friday from 4-11 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. Reston Town Center: 11900 Market St. Reston, VA; www.restontaste.com

SUNDAY, JULY 14

Silver Spring Arts & Crafts Summer Fair
Check out the Silver Spring Arts & Crafts Fair this summer featuring arts & crafts, food and beverage vendors, and many fun family activities. 2-8 p.m. Free to attend. Silver Spring Veterans Plaza: 1 Veterans Pl. Silver Spring, MD; www.silverspringdowntown.com

SATURDAY, AUGUST 24

17th Street Festival
Since 2010, the 17th Street Festival has been celebrating 17th Street and its diversity of restaurants and retailers. There are 100 vendors with more than 60 artists and makers displaying everything from fine art to jewelry, ceramics to crafts, and every creative item in-between. Other vendors include area nonprofit organizations, politicians, entrepreneurs and local businesses. The kids’ zone has activities for children including a large slide, soccer, snow cones, face painting and games throughout the day. All-day event. Free to attend. 17th Street from P Street to R Street in NW, DC; www.17thstreetfestival.org

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 8

Adams Morgan Day
As DC’s longest-running neighborhood festival, Adams Morgan Day celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. The event is a family-friendly celebration with music, art and activities for all ages. Adams Morgan welcomes residents and visitors alike to meet neighborhood businesses, artists and service organizations. Attendance and entertainment are free, and local businesses and restaurants offered deals for the day. 18th Street to Kalorama and Columbia Roads in NW, DC; www.admoday.com

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 21

Clarendon Day
At this year’s Clarendon Day, there will be tons of arts and crafts vendors featuring everything from apparel to jewelry to art and photography and more. There will also be a number of food purveyors including many of Clarendon’s favorites. With local in mind, there also be several local nonprofits in attendance to make it easy for the community to connect with its service providers. Times TBA. Free to attend. www.clarendon.org

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 6

Takoma Park Street Festival
The 38th annual Takoma Park Street Festival will once again host a talented mix of local artists offering paintings, photographs, pottery, silk-screening, bath and body care, stained glass, jewelry, woodworking, textiles, ceramics, kids’ items, and much more. Nonprofits, local companies and a variety of food vendors will also participate. In addition, Takoma’s indie businesses will be open and welcoming visitors. 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Along Carroll Avenue in Takoma Park, MD and Carroll Street in NW, DC; www.mainstreettakoma.com

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 13

H Street Festival
H Street Festival is one of the most anticipated and highly attended single-day festivals in DC. The festival is 11 blocks long and has 14 staging areas that are diversely themed and programmed to target the different segments of audiences. The staging areas feature music of different genres, dance, youth-based performances, interactive children’s program, fashion, heritage arts, poetry and much more.Along H Street in NE, DC; www.hstreetfestival.org