Audience members take photographs of the newly unveiled logo. Photo by Scott Ball.
The Tricentennial Commission is in preparation of celebrating the 300th anniversary of San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A special offer by the Smithsonian Institution could bring San Antonio’s unique 300-year history to Washington’s National Mall next year, adding to the Tricentennial celebrations that will take place locally throughout 2018.

City leaders with the Tricentennial Commission, the World Heritage Office, and the newly formed nonprofit Visit San Antonio spoke with Smithsonian officials Wednesday about the possibility of featuring San Antonio at the institution’s annual Folklife Festival, a large-scale, cultural heritage event in Washington D.C. that garners international attention.

Each entity is analyzing the opportunity, a City public affairs officer told the Rivard Report Wednesday. A decision is expected “very quickly.” Tricentennial Commission CEO Edward Benavides told the Rivard Report Tuesday that his organization is considering the timing, planning, and financial commitments that would come as a principal participant in the festival.

“At this time we have not developed a final recommendation back to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival,” Benavides said.

Although talks are continuing, early indications suggested the Smithsonian’s initial invitation to San Antonio was going to be met with rejection without public awareness or debate.

Founded in 1967, the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival is a two-week program that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world to D.C.’s National Mall every summer, overlapping with the Fourth of July holiday.

Each festival focuses on one or more different countries, regions, states, or themes and features an immersive experience of “daily and evening programs of music, song, dance, celebratory performance, crafts and cooking demonstrations, storytelling, illustrations of workers’ culture, and narrative sessions for discussing cultural issues,” according to its website. Past programs have featured the Basque country, Perú and its Pachamama traditions, the Sounds of California, and the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps.

Smithsonian Folklife Festival Director Sabrina Motley told the Rivard Report Monday that she and her team had been corresponding with the Tricentennial Commission about the festival as early as November and December of last year. Some confusion in the communication process at the time gave her the impression that the commission had turned the idea down, but this week’s phone conversation convinced her the invitation is still being considered.

“My understanding is that the Tricentennial Commission and others will be in continued conversation in order to carry out due diligence,” she stated in an email to the Rivard Report.

Sabrina Lynn Motley at the opening of the 2014 Folklife Festival.
Sabrina Motley at the opening of the 2014 Folklife Festival. Credit: Rachel Winslow / Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

The Summer 2018 festival would highlight San Antonio’s cultural heritage, including local artisan crafts, music, and food, and explore how each sustains community, Motley said.

San Antonio would be included alongside Catalonia and Armenia, both of which the Smithsonian has already been working with, Motley added. Other partners will be announced at the opening ceremony of this year’s Folklife Festival, which will take place from June 29-July 4 and July 6-9 and is made of three parts: Circus Arts, American Folk: Celebrating the NEA National Heritage Fellows, and On the Move: Youth, Culture, and Migration.

To see past Folklife Festival programs, click here.

The previous confusion led the Smithsonian to explore other options to showcase at the 2018 event, but Motley said she is glad that San Antonio is still considering the offer.

If San Antonio wants to participate, officials would have to commit by the end of March, she said.

Motley suspects that any reservations San Antonian entities have are likely related to planning and money, and how best to allocate resources amid the local 300th anniversary planning.

“The planning for the 300 celebration [in San Antonio] is going to be huge, so we certainly understand people not wanting to bite off more than they can chew,” she said.

The Tricentennial Commission, a public nonprofit, has been working for more than one year on planning San Antonio’s 300th anniversary celebrations, which will kick off this New Year’s Eve and go through the 2018 calendar year. The commission is planning a special “Commemorative Week” on May 2018, starting on the day (May 1) that Mission de San Antonio de Valero – the Alamo – was founded in 1718, and ending on May 6. The week will feature days focused on arts and culture, history and education, religious diversity, local heritage groups, and the unveiling of the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project.

American Indians in Texas Dance Theater perform a creation dance. Photo by Scott Ball.
The Tricentennial Commission’s balloon floats high above the groundbreaking of the first phase of the San Pedro Creek Improvement Project in September 2016.

Along with building up the year’s calendar of events, which will include hundreds of cultural, historical, and educational events hosted by local organizations and entities, the Tricentennial Commission also is working on fundraising for the festivities.

The organization’s overall budget is $18.2 million, $12 million of which has come from the City and the County. Benavides told the Rivard Report last week that the commission’s fundraising committee has additionally secured a little more than $2 million thus far from the private sector.

Involvement in the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival comes with significant costs, Motley said, which could be upward of $1 million. The institution takes care of infrastructure costs and works with its program partners to secure sponsorships and any other available opportunities to drive down the festival price tag.

How much San Antonio would have to pay depends on the scale of the exhibition, something local leaders would work with the Smithsonian to determine.

“We make suggestions based on what we know has happened at festivals in the past, then together we settle on a scale that makes sense, both in terms of the content as well as the budget,” Motley said.

Tricentennial officials are working to raise the remaining capital for the local celebrations from private partners, Benavides said, and are optimistic that they’ll meet or even exceed their fundraising goals.

“We’re clearly responsible for fundraising nearly $6 million more so that we can make sure that the [local] goals the commission has set forth do come to fruition in 2018,” Benavides said.

Participating in the Folklife Festival would increase the commission’s fundraising goal, but Benavides said he still thinks it is a great opportunity for the city.

“It’s very exciting as we work toward showcasing San Antonio not only on the local, regional, but on the national [stage],” he said.

San Antonio in Washington D.C.

Participation in the Folklife Festival includes an extensive curatorial component, where Smithsonian curators travel to San Antonio to talk to local stakeholders and historians to dive deep into the city’s history and culture. The result of the research-based, community-driven process is an in-depth exhibition telling the various stories of San Antonio, particularly those that stray from the typical narratives centered around the River Walk and the Alamo, for example.

Local musicians, chefs, artists, storytellers, and others would be invited to the festivities in D.C. to demonstrate to the public their crafts and knowledge that contribute to San Antonio’s vibrant cultural fabric.

Smithsonian Latino Center Director Eduardo Díaz, who previously lived in San Antonio for more than 20 years, said he met in person with Benavides and another Tricentennial staff member in October on other matters and gave a brief overview of the festival and its curating process.

“I tried to talk [the festival] up because I’m a big fan of San Antonio, obviously, and I know what it has to offer. I know its significance as a major U.S. city and its uniqueness on many levels,” said Díaz, who served 10 years as the first director of the City’s Arts & Culture Department, which advocates for and manages the local creative industry. He has been involved with the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival since 2008.

“I thought it would be a great opportunity,” Díaz said. “There’s a huge number of people that attend. This is a national and international crowd, so what it does is it affords the opportunity for large, diverse publics to learn more about a place – whether it’s a country, a region, or a city – and learn about its culture, about its people, about its history.”

A Smithsonian Folklife Festival stage in front of the United States Capitol last year. Credit: Courtesy / the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

It also has the potential to boost San Antonio’s already booming tourism industry, Díaz added.

Motley said she and her team showed interest in San Antonio since it’s rich in history and culture, not just when it comes to the typical attractions such as the River Walk or the Alamo, but “in ways that the general public or an average tourist may not see.” Exposing those lesser-known, more local aspects of the city has been a more recent mission of City officials and community leaders who want San Antonio to be seen as a more authentic cultural city.

In that sense, the festival would provide the opportunity “for San Antonio to really shine and also to cast itself in a more comprehensive and a different light that belies the existing narrative – the tried and true, home-spun, same ol’, same ol’ story and perceptions of San Antonio,” Díaz said.

Motley said she looks forward to continuing the conversation with the Tricentennial Commission and the City, especially if there is indeed a genuine interest in the festival.

“To be able to share the stories of community and creativity and connection and history and innovation in a different way as the city celebrates 300 years is really important,” she said.

Camille Garcia is a journalist born and raised in San Antonio. She formerly worked at the San Antonio Report as assistant editor and reporter. Her email is