The South Carolina Folk Heritage Award was created by the South Carolina Legislature in 1987 to recognize lifetime achievement in the traditional arts. In 1997 the name was changed to the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award in memory of state representative Harris' long-time support of South Carolina's cultural heritage. Along with The Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Award for the Arts, the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award is a part of The South Carolina Arts Awards Program.
The award recognizes individuals or groups who have used their lives to create beauty and meaning for their communities and the state as a whole in ways that are significant because they have lasted, often for hundreds of years. Winners of the award represent those who have demonstrated excellence in a folk art tradition and enriched the lives of persons in their community through their unique talents. McKissick Museum and the South Carolina Arts Commission administer the awards process; an advisory panel appointed by the Lieutenant Governor and the Speaker of the House selects the winners. Criteria for the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award as established by 1987 legislative bill include:
- Emphasis on the authenticity of the tradition, giving the highest priority to those crafts with a long history of practice in the state.
- The significance of the individual folk artist or group in maintaining or stimulating the craft to higher levels of artistic achievement; or, the significance of the folk arts advocate in supporting authentic South Carolina traditional arts or interpreting it to a wider audience.
- The award must be given to folk artists living and practicing in South Carolina.
- The Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award may be presented to no more than four recipients each year by the General Assembly. An advocacy award may also be presented.
Nominations for the award are solicited throughout the year and the advisory panel meets in early spring to determine the recipients. A public ceremony and reception is held in April or May to celebrate the honorees.