In the continuing battle between Mall preservationists and those who most want to preserve its role as the central gathering place of American democracy, call this one a draw. Or, perhaps, a win-win.
The Smithsonian and the National Park Service entered into an agreement Wednesday that will keep the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall for the next five years. The Folklife Festival, an international cultural celebration that annually draws a million people, had been in danger of losing its place on the Mall beginning next year because of tighter restrictions on Mall use for festivals. A Feb. 6 letter to the Park Service from Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough raised concerns that increased restrictions could jeopardize the festival’s place on the Mall. The announcement, expected during the festival’s opening ceremony Wednesday, allays those concerns.
“Absolutely, without a doubt, we want it there,” Park Service spokeswoman Carol Johnson said. “This is a partnership. We’ve been partners with them for more than 40 years, and we had always planned to allow the festival to remain on the Mall. It’s an historically important celebration, and we’ve always recognized that. It was just a matter of working out the details to make sure their event was able to go forward and the cultural and natural resources of the Mall were also protected.”
“Naturally we’re very pleased to have a Memorandum of Agreement with the Park Service,” Michael Mason, director of the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, said. “We’re very pleased that they’ve acknowledged that the festival is an essential part of the park and belongs on the Mall. And we’re pleased that they’re committing to keeping the festival on the Mall even during the renovations.”
In recent years, the Park Service’s restoration and rehabilitation work has often put it at odds with large groups hoping to gather. Those restrictions have pushed the National Book Festival to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and canceled plans for the National Council of Negro Women’s annual Black Family Reunion.
First held in 1967, the festival will take place in its traditional location between Seventh and 14th streets this year, and will be located between Third and Seventh streets for 2015 to accommodate a second phase of turf renovation, which is expected to be completed in spring 2016. Mall upgrades since 2010 have included restoration of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, repair of the Tidal Basin seawall and restoration of the D.C. War Memorial. There have also been restrictions on the use of temporary structures.
The Mall compromise will maximize “hardscape,” or anything without turf, as usable space. It will include alternative flooring and tenting arrangements, expected to cost an additional $350,000 annually, which will be covered by fundraising, Mason said. It will also explore new ways to stage the festival. But it will do little to answer overarching questions of how much is the Mall for use, how much is it a place to be looked at and admired, and who gets to determine the balance.
“This is a step in the right direction,” said Judy Scott Feldman, president of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. “It’s one private agreement between two large government entities. Now we need to open up the discussion to all Americans.”