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James R. Morris

Jim Morris (1927–2020) brought the performing arts to the Smithsonian in the 1960s in an effort to liven up the Institution and address aspects of American culture generally overlooked in museums. He was the originator of the Festival of American Folklife, which became the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

In 1966, Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley hired Jim as director of Museum Services and the next year appointed him director of the Smithsonian’s new Division of Performing Arts. In 1964, Jim had produced an American Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, featuring such artists as Horton Barker, Hobart Smith, Frank Proffitt, Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, and Bessie Jones and the Sea Island Singers. He proposed the idea of a folk festival on the National Mall to Ripley in January 1967 and hired Ralph Rinzler and Henry Glassie to help plan it. In May, Ripley approved $4,900 for the event.

The first Festival of American Folklife included eighty-four participants—among them Jones and the Sea Islanders, bluesman John Jackson, singer and storyteller Janie Hunter, Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band, cowboy singer Glenn Ohrlin, Libba Cotten, and the King Island Eskimo dancers. The four-day Festival took place over the Fourth of July weekend on the Mall and on the plaza of the Museum of History and Technology. The Festival drew 430,000 visitors, media attention, and kudos from members of Congress. A few critics questioned the seriousness of the Festival and its use of the Mall, but Jim persisted and Ripley offered his strong endorsement.

Concurrent with the first Festival, Jim organized a folklife conference including Alan Lomax, Archie Green, Moses Asch, Roger Abrahams, Don Yoder, Austin Fife, D.K. Wilgus, and Richard Dorson, among others, who proposed a comprehensive program of folklife activities at the Smithsonian and across the nation. This led to a bill, introduced by Senator Ralph Yarborough and developed by his staffer, Jim Hightower, to establish an American Folklife Institute, which later provided the basis for American Folklife Center legislation.

The increasingly successful Festival became a key component of the American Bicentennial celebration. The Festival’s budget and staff grew under Jim’s guidance. The Festival began a national touring program. The 1976 Festival, with a seven million-dollar budget, lasted twelve weeks and involved five thousand artists from every region in the United States and from thirty-five other nations. Jim, along with Ralph Rinzler, was named a Washingtonian of the Year. For Jim, the Festival helped affirm the idea of a rich and vital American culture created in the daily lives of people. It was a corrective to notions of American cultural insecurity, feelings that Americans to be cultured had to imitate European art forms.

Jim’s cultural program was broader than folklife and the Festival. After 1976, he and Rinzler parted ways. As the director of the Division of Performing Arts until its dissolution in 1985, Jim began the Smithsonian Collection of Recordings, the Discovery Theater for schoolchildren, and performance programs in jazz, puppetry, American dance, and musical theater—including a nine hundred-seat nylon and steel “Theater-on-the-Mall.” The Grammy-winning Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz was produced under his leadership. The music program in the Division of Cultural History at the National Museum of American History owes much to his work, as does the Program in Black American Culture.

Jim was himself a performing artist. He had a career as a singer and actor in Broadway and off-Broadway productions. He appeared in musical theater productions, as a featured performer on television, and on recordings. Jim created In the Mood, a 1940s musical revue, and in 1980, he directed and conducted the highly acclaimed operetta Naughty Marietta. In 1986, he was nominated for a Grammy Award for his annotation of American Popular Song.

Jim’s ideas on cultural policy foreshadowed later Center contributions. In 1976, he saw policy enshrined in government, foundations, and educational institutions “designed to develop a greater body of consumers. These policies are determined by the few for the many, are basically patronizing in attitude, and are uncoordinated and largely unevaluated.” Noting that the Festival had encouraged broader participation in American cultural life, he saw the need “to provide access to the policy-making procedures by which we will sustain a culture in which the arts can flourish.”

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