There is one beloved Pacific Northwest festival that has tried out the online streaming model already. Northwest Folklife kicks off typical Seattle summers — every summer since 1971— with three days of dance, music and vendors from communities around the Pacific Northwest on Memorial Day Weekend. Kelli Faryar, the festival’s executive artistic director, said to the planning committee in early March that they could not proceed with the festival as planned. The events of the pandemic were cascading and affecting not only the festival; participants were no longer able to afford costumes.
Faryar’s team decided to postpone the in-person gathering to 2021, the festival’s 50th year. “Best for us to take this year in fallow and come back with bigger blooms in 2021,” Faryar said.
But instead of canceling the 2020 event outright, the team decided to hold the festival online, titling it “From Home to Home” with artists performing from their homes straight into the homes of viewers and attendees. As a result, Faryar said this year’s festival provided an opportunity to reach a global audience. People tuned in from Korea, Iran and Pakistan, among other countries. “The opportunity to expand and showcase who we are in the PNW to a global audience that blew our minds,” Faryar said.
As for the vendors who fill Seattle Center with colorful handicrafts, clothing and other small community businesses, being unable to sell in person is a loss. Yet, the festival held a virtual marketplace attended by over 200 vendors. Faryar says this will be something that continues throughout the year. “I imagine that is something we will keep up and have year-round, knowing that the recovery for small businesses and art is going to be taking time.”
For events like the Folklife Festival, which values serving a wide array of communities and artists, the access that can come with online events and live streaming can actually help the organization.
But that same accessibility won’t translate to all communities. John Romero who helps coordinate artists as part of the Circle of Indigenous Peoples Celebration (CIPC) said the online format isn’t always conducive for Indigenous communities. Many elders do not know how to use Zoom and other internet technologies — even with the knowledge of unpredictable internet connection, inefficient hardware and buffering issues make it impossible to connect online.
Romero said COVID-19’s impacts have been a huge loss for Indigenous celebrations around the country. Folklife weekend brings Indigenous people from around the country to Seattle, and this year, that left many people’s calendars blank. Local pow wows have all been canceled and so have national gatherings like the annual Gathering of Nations taking place in Gallup, New Mexico. While there is an online revolution happening to bring Indigenous communities and cultures into the digital age, Romero says that nothing beats in-person connection and once it is safe to do so again, the CIPC will find ways to circle together, sharing dances, music and community in the flesh once again.
Read more in the June 17-23, 2020 issue.