For more than 40 years as a director of three different cultural agencies and as a national arts leader, Al Head has advocated for the importance of the traditional arts and the necessity of providing state support for this field. The only state arts director to start folk arts programs in three states -- Florida, Louisiana, and Alabama -- Head has strived to show how important the folk and traditional arts are to defining and giving life to a community.
A native of Troy, Alabama, Head earned his undergraduate degree from Troy State University in art history and aesthetics, where he was a star quarterback on their 1968 NAIA national championship football team. He received his MA, with a concentration on Southern literature, from Auburn University at Montgomery. In 1974 he received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to attend Harvard's Arts Administration Institute. An integral part of the state arts field since his position in 1972 with the Fine Arts Council of Florida, Head served as executive director at the Stephen Foster Folklife Center (1975-77) and the Louisiana Division of the Arts (1977-85), before becoming executive director of the Alabama State Council on the Arts, a position he has held since 1985.
Head also served two terms on the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA) board and in 1998 NASAA presented him with the Gary Young Award for his leadership and achievements in promoting the arts nationally. Head has also served as a member of the South Arts board for 35 years, presiding as its chair 1983-85.
Described by Peggy Bulger, former director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, as "one of the most important pioneers in arts administration to recognize and embrace the folk and traditional arts," Head has mentored a number of folklorists and was instrumental in creating a network of state folklorists in the southern states' arts agencies. He initiated the establishment of the Florida Folk Arts Center in White Springs in 1975 and the Louisiana Folklife Commission in 1981. In 1990 he established the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture (ACTC) as a division of the Alabama Council on the Arts dedicated to research and presentation of the state's cultural traditions. Today, ACTC provides funding assistance for folklife projects, technical assistance, folk art apprenticeships, and the presentation of folk artists. In addition, ACTC collaborates with the Alabama Folklife Association and other organizations who share the goal of interpreting and documenting Alabama folk culture.
He has been part of the nomination process leading to both Alabama and Louisiana artists receiving an NEA National Heritage Fellowship, including musicians Dewey Balfa, Clifton Chenier, and the Birmingham Sunlights; quilters Mozell Benson, Nora Ezell, and Bettye Kimbrell; and potter Jerry Brown, among others.
NEA: I want to begin by congratulating you on receiving the Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship. Congratulations.
Al Head: Well, thank you very much. I'm very honored and pleased. I knew Bess Hawes and I'm very honored to be mentioned in the same breath as someone that I admired so much.
NEA: How did you meet Bess?
Head: I was in White Springs, Florida, with the Stephen Foster Folklife Center that we were just starting. I had been working with the Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs in Tallahassee and moved over to White Springs. And the idea, the concept, of coming up with the Folklife Center was something that I was there to initiate. The Florida Folklife Festival had been going on there for a number of years, and it was known as a really popular and important event. I got to know Bess when I was there. Then when I went over to Louisiana in 1977 I got to know her a lot better. She would come to the state and spend some time with us and a number of the folk artists that were there that she knew and was very close to. I got to know Bess very well over the Louisiana years.
NEA: I think we're at a point right now where we just accept the centrality of folk and traditional arts in American culture. But Bess and you were pioneers in really making that happen.
Head: I think that programming and supporting the folk and traditional arts as a matter of public policy was something that had not been established, certainly not at the state level. But if you're dealing with the arts and culture of a state, I've said on many occasions that the folk and traditional arts reflect the personality, the soul, really the integrity of the culture of a state better than anything else. And to not have that be a big part of your policy, your program, your goals, your mission, in terms of what you do, is a huge oversight. But that involved a lot of communication with public officials and people who were involved at the time. And, for the most part, it was advocating something that people realized was important but many times overlooked.
NEA: How did you first become interested in folk and traditional art?
Head: Well, as I said, I started off in Tallahassee in 1972. And this was in the Panhandle part of the state, and there were rich folk traditions in that area. And my hometown, where I grew up and call home, is Troy, Alabama, in the Wiregrass part of Alabama. Folk culture was something that was very prevalent there, something I experienced as a young boy. And I just thought it was magical. But when I was in a position professionally to start looking at areas of support, that was something that seemed very obvious and there were artists and folk traditions that were all around us. For the most part, again, back in the early '70s in establishing government support for the arts, we were looking at large museums and symphony orchestras and dance companies. The folk arts were something that were seen as nice, but not something that really is a big part of our funding policy. It just was part of my background, part of my rearing and perspective. And as part of government support for the arts, I thought that was appropriate and important from the very beginning.
NEA: I'm curious about how you moved into the arts. You were a star quarterback on a national championship college team.
Head: Well, I was a quarterback at what was Troy State University at the time. I was one of those that really did not know what I wanted to be or what I wanted to do. Football had been a big part of my life in high school and then I got a scholarship to play in college. But in terms of studying and having a major, I started off in marine biology and went to business administration and psychology. But all of that time, I was taking courses in art history and aesthetics because I was interested in it and I loved it and it was something that I had a passion for at that time. By the time I was a senior and was looking at graduating, I realized that art history was what was really kind of ringing my bell at that point. And I know that from a standpoint of playing football, guys on the team would kind of look sideways at me saying, "What is it you're doing here?" But it was something that I enjoyed and have ever since.
NEA: I understand an early NEA program called Project Impact actually did have an impact on you.
Head: The year after I graduated from Troy State, I taught at the high school and I was also an assistant coach in Pike County. Pike County was designated as "culturally deprived." And the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Office of Education had a national program. Pike County was one of five counties nationally that was part of this Project Impact. At that time, there was a real infusion of artist and artist residence programs and performing arts, visual arts. When I was teaching at the high school I was exposed to a number of these artists that would come into my classroom, come into the school. And they were doing work with students and it was really phenomenal opportunities. But at that time, this was 1971 or '72, just having graduated from college, I had never heard of the National Endowment for the Arts. And then I started to realize that there were some really important, significant, exciting programs going on and that there was this federal agency that was really initiating this in a rural area of Alabama. And so I started connecting the dots and realizing that there was a much larger world of support out there for these kind of activities than I had realized. But that exposed me to a lot of artists, to a lot of programming, a lot of interest at the federal level in the rural areas, in this case, of Alabama.
NEA: One thing that strikes me about folk and traditional art is that even though it certainly speaks with a universal language it's very specific to a locality.
Head: Well, I think that in each area there are some things that are shared and in common. And then there are some things that are very indigenous to a state, to a region, in some cases, to a community. There is Southern culture that we talk about a lot like it is one thing, but obviously it is not. There are many cultures in the South. Southern culture is about as diverse as any location that you would ever want to find, but there is commonality. But going to somewhere like Louisiana and experiencing the Cajun culture, the Acadian culture there, you realize that is something that is very unique to Louisiana. You come to a place like Alabama and you realize the roots of African-American gospel music in and around the Birmingham area, that's very indigenous to Alabama in that part of the state. You want to make people aware of that, appreciate that, and celebrate that. In most all cases, you don't have large arts institutions that are programming in these areas like you have in large museums, symphony orchestras, opera companies, or dance companies. In the folk and traditional arts you don't have that 501(c)(3) organization or institution that's been in place for 50 or 100 years, that has a long history of programming. In the folk arts, these are things that happen in the community. They happen in the church. They happen in a variety of different venues but they don't have this tradition of being part of that nonprofit sector we use to fund the arts. Traditionally that's where our grants have gone. And in the folk arts, that was a little more complicated and a little bit more difficult.
NEA: I'd like to focus, just for the moment, on Alabama. You've been at the head of the Alabama State Council on the Arts for more than 25 years. Let's talk about the changes that you've seen in both the public's response and the government's response to the arts and arts' place in the community over that time.
Head: Well, let me say, when I came to Alabama in 1985 from Louisiana there had been good work that had been going on here for quite some time. Hank Willett had been working with the Alabama State Council on the Arts for a number of years and had done some wonderful work, especially with the African-American shape-note tradition in Alabama, for a number of years. And as a matter of fact, Dewey Balfa, from Dale County, was one of the early National Heritage Fellow recipients. And Hank was a big part of that. He had been working with the state council and doing fieldwork and drawing attention to the folk arts and folk artists, and so there had been work that had been going on. But in terms of the size and scope of the commitment, it was not as large as it could be and should be. When I came, after having been in Louisiana for eight years, I was of the feeling that the folk arts [are] one of the richest cultural resources that the state has and that we need to support that more, celebrate that more, make people more appreciative. We developed an organizational structure for maximizing what we could do in this area. We started off with a Challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to start a folklife center in a state. It was pretty unique for the NEA to be providing a Challenge grant for that -- I had been on NEA folklife panels for a number of years and I was aware of the kind of applications that came in in general. But I put together this Challenge grant and it was funded and really was the springboard for us starting the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, which is a more program-oriented entity than the state council is normally. [The Alabama State Council on the Arts] primarily administers a grants program and has a number of special projects. But the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture engaged in fieldwork, in programs, radio programs, and we had folklife festivals for a number of years. That was just part of moving this kind of cultural expression front and center within the state where it very much deserved to be.
NEA: And you also began the Alabama Folklife Association.
Head: Well, that's a private 501(c)(3) organization that was a real partner. We needed that kind of partnership within the state to be involving a larger group of people doing a wide range of different work. We've got a lot of wonderful folks in the state that do important work and need to be assisted to do more work, and the association was another vehicle to do that.
I have tried to say on any number of occasions, I'm very honored and pleased about the award but it is very much a reflection of the hard and dedicated work by many really outstanding professionals. I mentioned Hank Willett and Joey Brackner, who is the director of the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture. I hired Joey in the fall of 1985 and he's been with us ever since. He and his staff with the center, they do such terrific work and forge partnerships, work with artists, work with organizations, work with universities and schools. And, to whatever extent that we've accomplished some pretty great things here -- and I think we have -- it's the work of Joey and his group and I'm glad to be able to assist with that a little bit.
NEA: You have also been very eloquent about one shift that you've seen over your time in Alabama -- that the arts are now not just seen as a lovely addition to add on, like the decorations on a cake, when times are good and there's money, but it really is rather something essential and it really has a tremendous social and economic impact on the community.
Head: Well, the arts in general and the folk arts in particular, as I said earlier, represent the heart and soul of a state. As you are trying to promote a state and promote the quality of life within a state, how do you do that? You can do that very, very well and very effectively through the arts. More and more people, as far as corporations and CEOs and executives deciding where they're going to move a company or make an investment, they have choices about where they want to live, where they want to bring their families, where they want their children to grow up. Quality of life is increasingly important. When we can put what I think is our best foot forward regarding the work of artist and arts organizations, we're constantly pleasantly surprising people that visit Alabama. They come and they say, "We had no idea that all of this was here. We had no idea about what a rich cultural landscape Alabama is." And the folk arts are a very big part of that, but also in Alabama we've got a wide range of contemporary art and artists. Great work is taking place. [We've] got fine museums, fine symphony orchestras. It's all part of a package. As a matter of public policy and as a matter of planning a strategy within a state on how you move a state forward, we very much need to have officials -- public officials and others -- that are aware of the arts and see this as a tool, as another part of how you attract interest and how you get people excited about coming to a state.
NEA: I would think that folk and traditional arts really are a centerpiece in that, because it is so reflective of the state itself.
Head: Well, it is. And it's hard to find someone who does not have a family connection, a community connection, a personal connection with somebody back home where, when they were growing up, they experienced a musician or a woodcarver or a potter or a storyteller. It goes back, again, to the roots of who we are and where we come from.
In this day and time of high technology, when we're in front of monitors and we're using all of these different sophisticated means of communication ... the arts and particularly the folk arts provide us with that high-touch experience, where we're going back to something real and going back to something authentic and something that we know where we've come from and we value these things in a variety of ways. Maybe you don't realize it when you're 16 years old or 25 years old, but the older you get and the more you appreciate your culture, you realize these things have to be saved and preserved and celebrated and that's what the folk arts are all about. And I say celebrated. Celebrating diversity as opposed to being confused and intimidated by diversity. The folk arts are the best way in the world to celebrate diversity of people, diversity of cultural expression. And so we enjoy being able to do that.
NEA: I think there is sometimes a stereotype of the arts and I think particularly the folk and traditional arts as somehow being static and frozen in time. When, in fact, that, in an odd way, is really the place that lets people in.
Head: Well, it is. You mentioned Bess a while ago -- she taught me a lot; I sat and listened to her on many occasions. She would emphasize that the folk and traditional arts are not static -- they are always evolving and there is a contemporary side to traditional expression but it evolves over time and it needs to continue to evolve and be relevant and speak to young people and speak to individuals of different backgrounds. We preserve that which has been around a long time but we also nurture it in a way where it can continue to grow and be relevant and be part of an active community experience. That coming together in a community is so important. We, in our culture, have done a lot of things to separate people into different parts of neighborhoods or a community or whatever. But you need activities, programs, and places where people come together and celebrate a sense of community. And the arts do that well. The folk arts do that especially well.
NEA: Can you discuss a program that you shepherded in Louisiana documenting the Vietnamese resettlement there? It seems to me to be a perfect expression of what can happen or how folk art can work.
Head: Well, that was a new population. It was a growing population. And I really have to give a lot of credit to Nick Spitzer who I hired in Louisiana in the fall of '77. Nick had so much sensitivity toward this new population and realized that there were cultural expressions there that were important but very foreign to the state of Louisiana at that time. But to provide an outlet, to provide an avenue and a vehicle for these new immigrants to maintain and celebrate a big part of their culture was a huge part of the infusion of that population in the state. People tend to know what they like and like what they know. And, something that is foreign to them, they tend to be a little alienated or confused or, in some cases, intimidated by it. But the more you get to know something, the more you appreciate it and the more you want to be a part of it. That was the case with the Vietnamese population in Louisiana. The more you got to know about it, the more you enjoyed it, the more you realized how rich it was. We have a Cambodian fishing community down in the Bayou La Batre area of Alabama, and it's the same there. This is a source of great pride for these people. For us to recognize that and give them opportunities to show off this part of their culture is an important thing for us to be able to do.
NEA: You've also begun a cultural exchange program.
Head: Our cultural exchange program started a number of years ago. It was primarily and initially centered around the resource of marble in Alabama, in Sylacauga. The marble industry has evolved to the point where most of the marble, 90 percent of it, is being ground up and used for filler -- for toothpaste and paint and cosmetics. And in Sylacauga there was only one quarry that was bringing out chunks and blocks of marble that could be used for sculpting. So we were trying to rejuvenate and refocus interest on this fine marble that is from Alabama. There was an Italian sculptor in Alabama, in the early part of the 20th century, Giuseppe Moretti, who did a number of monumental pieces of sculpture. But he declared that the Sylacauga marble was every bit as good as Carrera marble from Italy. To make a really long story short, we started visiting Italy, Pietrasanta in particular. We were wanting to bring some Italian sculptors -- master sculptors -- and artists to Alabama to work with the Sylacauga marble and to engage in demonstrations and rejuvenate some interest and bring in sculptors from different parts of Alabama, and really around the country, to work with the sculptors. The excitement that has stimulated in Sylacauga -- they now have a Sylacauga Marble Festival. The tradition of marble sculpting goes way back there, but it had all been forgotten. So that was a big part of the emphasis and focus for the cultural exchange. And it spread into other areas, including music and literature. We took our African-American a cappella gospel group, the Birmingham Sunlights, who were recipients of the National Heritage Fellowship award several years ago, to perform over in Pietrasanta, Italy. They performed on the piazza there and started off with a crowd of a couple of hundred. Within 10 or 15 minutes there were 2,000 people there. They couldn't believe what they were hearing, and to see that sort of cultural bridge of how this Italian population was responding to the Birmingham Sunlights was really pretty amazing and quite a thrill actually.
NEA: That dovetails into the Alabama Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program. That began 22 years ago?
Head: That's been going on for a long time, 22-plus years. This is a program that the NEA has been funding for a number of years. And we have, over time, continued to put more and more state money into that program. To provide support for master artists to teach their craft or their tradition or their expression to a younger generation, that's very, very important. Bess Hawes was very emphatic about the importance of teaching the younger folks these traditions and making sure that they, again, could carry on. And you like what you know and you know what you like. In some communities, there's a tendency for the young folks to go in different directions -- even to the point of some alienation regarding different artistic expressions. But, invariably, when you get them together with a master artist, there's an incredible amount of interest and respect and engagement there that happens through the apprenticeship program that I don't know where and how it happens anywhere else. We need to do more and more of that and these model programs really help us to introduce important work to the younger generation but also to celebrate and recognize the work of these master artists, whether it's in quilting or woodcarving or pottery or shape-note singing. It's an incredibly successful program.
NEA: You mentioned the Birmingham Sunlights, and you were one of the nominators for their National Heritage award. Somebody else you nominated who also received a National Heritage Fellowship was Clifton Chenier.
Head: Clifton is legendary in Louisiana. And, again, I have to go back to Nick Spitzer. Nick did so much wonderful documentation of these artists in Louisiana. He traveled around the state -- we all traveled around the state. And these individuals became friends. They performed at programs and events. You would see them in their communities and at a dance hall on a Friday or a Saturday night. And on one hand, they were just part of the folk that had been there as part of the cultural landscape for a long time. And then on the other hand, they were legendary to the point where people from all over the country would come in to listen to them play. People would come in from different parts of Europe. They'd heard about these individuals, and they would come there. So we appreciated their work. We tried to make sure that other people appreciated it. And nominating individuals like that was just easy. I mean, they were there and there was no question that these people needed that kind of recognition and attention on a national level.
NEA: And here we are at the dawn of the 21st century. Where do you think folk and traditional arts are right now at the cusp of a new century?
Head: Well, again, I go back to that high tech, high touch. I think that as we move forward with all of this technology, we still have this in our bones and in our genes where we don't want to lose touch with where we came from. We want the pride of our culture, of our ancestors, to kind of live on. As we deal with government and public policy, we talk about the size of government, and reducing the size of government, and what are essential functions of government, and to what extent do we support the arts, and to what extent is this something that needs to expand or grow in a time of difficult economy. But when we're talking to legislators here in Alabama, you can throw out all kind of fancy facts and figures and impact studies and this, that, and the other. But you let an artist speak and do what artists do, invariably that touches people in a way where they will say, "I get it." And they will be proud of that person. They're proud that they're from their community, from their state. And I've heard cowboy poets do it. I've heard Cajun musicians do it. I've heard a cappella gospel groups in Alabama do that.
No one argues with the fact that this is important. And, again, we dissect things in trying to determine what kind of funding is appropriate or those kind of things that make us a great state, a great community, a great country. When you have artists perform and do what artists do, it is the strongest statement that you can make about [how] this is a big part of who we are as a country and what we need to be about. And so where are the folk arts in 2012 and 2020 and 2050? I think the arts are going to be a big part of our culture and will remain so. And certainly it's a changing culture, but I can't help but think as humans we realize this is the highest form of human expression and there's got to be a kind of avenue of support for keeping that alive and well.