FRANKFORT, Ky. — The founder of the Kentucky Folklife Program has been awarded one of the nation’s highest honors in the field of folklore, given annually by the American Folklore Society (AFS).

Robert J. Gates, who recently announced his retirement as state folklorist after 23 years with the program, received the Benjamin Botkin Prize for significant achievement in public folklore from the AFS at its annual meeting this fall. The award is given in recognition of Botkin, an American folklorist important to the field of public folklore and the public’s understanding of it.

“Bob has worked tirelessly to serve communities, cultures and individual folk artists in a way that consistently gives the spotlight to others rather than himself,” said Tim Evans, a professor in Western Kentucky University’s Department of Folk Studies and Anthropology, who nominated Gates for the award. “Throughout his career, he has empowered the individuals and communities he has worked with.”

For more than two decades, Gates directed the statewide efforts of the Kentucky Folklife Program to document and conserve folk culture in Kentucky. Under his leadership, the program created archival collections of traditional musical communities, farmers, riverboat workers, immigrant groups, Kentucky’s deaf community and other groups. Gates produced folklife exhibits, created and guided the Kentucky Folklife Festival, and established lasting cultural relationships to document tradition-bearers, diverse cultures and communities in the Commonwealth.

“Kentucky reaped the benefits of Bob Gates’ dedication to the state’s folklife and traditions, and the work of artists, for many years,” said Lori Meadows, executive director of the Kentucky Arts Council. “His contributions to Kentucky folklife are immeasurable. The legacy he built during his tenure as director of the folklife program will resonate for years to come.”

The AFS gives the award annually to prominent American folklorists, recognizing lifetime achievement in public folklore. Recipients’ careers epitomize the best in public sector folklore methodology and practice.

“It’s really an honor,” said Gates. “People who have previously received this award are highly established in the folklife arena. “Some of them are my heroes, actually.”

Among Gates’ accomplishments was establishing the Community Scholars Program that trains residents of Kentucky communities how to conduct their own folklife studies to document local history, traditions, folk art and groups. Gates trained more than 200 community scholars.

He said one of the aspects of the work that was most important to him was his collaborations with folk artists to raise the profile of their work.

“Folk art is the art of everyday life, the art of everybody,” said Gates. “Part of what we tried to do with the folklife program was to find ways for others to see that everybody’s art is important, and we should document it and help people realize the value of it.”

Gates will officially retire at the end of 2012 and plans to continue his work as a folklorist. Another American folklorist, Ethel Raim, co-founder and director emeritus of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance in New York City, was also a recipient of the 2012 Botkin Prize.

The Kentucky Arts Council, the state arts agency, creates opportunities for Kentuckians to value, participate in and benefit from the arts. Kentucky Arts Council funding is provided by the Kentucky General Assembly and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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