2019 is the tenth year of my tenure on the board of directors of New York Folklore and my fourth as president. When I first joined, at the invitation of past president Gabrielle Hamilton – who steadfastly saw us through the recession of 2008 and the lean years that followed it – I was serving as folklorist for the Westchester County Arts Council. In that capacity, I explored various modes of engagement in community collaborations, cultural development and outreach to some of the leading traditional artists in the region. Not surprisingly many were immigrants. My own grandfather was a stateless Armenian immigrant, architect, designer and draftsman. The generosity of this land made his life in New York – and mine – possible. It is with great concern and foreboding that I watch and read about the events of our time in which mean spirited and narrow-minded opportunists try to set us against one another, playing on fear, greed, and resentment, when what we need in these times of challenging social, political, economic and climate crises is bravery, imagination and empathy.
Instead of a society based on exploitation, extraction, waste and violence, we need to envision a world where all manner of conservation of resources, culture, ideas and people is the standard. It is in this spirit that I have dedicated my own professional life to appreciation and promotion of diverse expressions of culture and ideas. That, in my view is the place of Folklore today. It is not a relegation of old quaint ways to the realm of museums and historical societies. Folk culture is living culture, only relevant if it is practiced, shared, and passed on to others. Certainly times do change and older ways give way to newer ones. As folklorists, we recognize that, but in so doing we honor the spirit of what has made family and community culture an essential part of our state and national history and character.
On a further thought, I want to express that in these extraordinary times, we need to think in much more ambitious terms. I recently saw the short film by artist and filmmaker, Molly Crabapple about the Green New Deal released on the Intercept website featuring text and narration by our newest congresswoman from Queens, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It not only asks us to imagine something other than a dystopian future of ruin, but also that the arts (and folk arts) can and should play a vital role as artists did during the original New Deal. In that spirit, I call upon New York Folklore, its members and supporters to imagine and work toward a future in which the traditional arts and culture we celebrate play a vital role in building a more sustainable world that values true conservation (of culture as well as the environment), that supports immigrants, whose imaginations (and labor) are going to be needed to fix this broken world, and values education above all to foster future generations and share the best of what we know.
Tom van Buren, New York Folklore Board President