Earlier this month, the 50th Annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall welcomed dozens of circus organizations and set the stage for an historic opportunity to bring together circus arts professionals from across the country. On July 5th (P.T. Barnum’s birthday coincidentally), the National Endowment for the Arts welcomed close to 200 circus arts performers, leaders, scholars, historians, administrators, presenters, and funders to our offices for a conversation on the state of the field. Why circus arts? Why the National Endowment for the Arts? Why now?
Circus continues to blend various traditional art form features—such as dance, music, theater, athleticism, daredevilry, staging, choreography, and costuming—into a clearly defined performance art. It blurs the lines between theater and exhibition, artistry and craftsmanship, old and new, outsider and insider, and though there have been periods of ebb and flow, we are seeing an extraordinary revival. This is significant, because it underscores circus arts as a burgeoning grassroots movement—and the art form’s increase in mainstream popularity. In 2015, aerialist Dolly Jacobs was selected as a National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellow, the first ever circus performer to be so honored.
People are excited about the new artistic experimentation they’re seeing and moved by the impact the circus arts are having in communities. Contemporary circuses have taken on projects such as providing clowns—and training doctors and nurses in clown arts—to interact with patients and hospital staff to relieve sadness, anxiety, isolation, and even pain. Circus groups have helped to rebuild city parks in Chicago, and they have changed lives in St. Louis by teaching young people circus arts and finding careers for them in the industry.
I strongly believe that one of the key roles of our agency, and for me as a director, is to recognize and support creative advancements happening throughout our country. And in my five-year tenure with the National Endowment for the Arts, we have certainly witnessed substantial lateral growth within the nonprofit circus community—not so much as a commercial endeavor but absolutely as performance art, as a grassroots movement, and as an agent for positive social change, whether it be expanding accessibility, inclusion, education, or health. It has been incredibly exciting to watch, witness, and learn.
We designed a jam-packed agenda for the NEA’s Circus Town Hall and while it would be impossible to provide an exact summary of the day’s proceedings, here are some principal observations (in no particular order of importance) that were discussed:
- *Circus performances are affordable and reach extremely diverse audiences both globally and across the United States.
- *Public and private funders need to recognize circus arts as a distinct discipline and invest in its future.
- *Circus arts have the potential to fulfill both physical education and arts education in schools throughout the United States.
- *Unification is imperative. Circus should be recognized in all of its forms including education, training, big top, proscenium, cabaret, and street performance.
- *Circus groups in the United States have the potential and capacity to create work at the same level as international companies but are lacking the support.
- *Circus performers/companies are great ambassadors for the United States and should participate in international arts exchanges.
- *Circus arts can contribute in the national conversation about the importance of supporting the arts.
- *U.S.-based presenters and producers have to play a bigger role by including circus arts programming in their venue and festival programming.
- *Circus arts possess the ability to heal trauma, build community, improve individual character, and address social challenges.
- *The circus community is in need of a national service organization that is representative of all its characteristics, genres, and forms.
There is clearly a thirst within the circus community to advance the art form and further enthusiasm for growth, innovation, and interpretation. To quote P.T. Barnum, “The noblest art is that of making others happy,” and there is no doubt in my mind that the circus arts are doing just that. It is our job, collectively, to see that this unique art form receives the requisite attention and unconditional support it so deserves.
by Michael Orlove, National Endowment for the Arts