25 August 2010


Maryo Gard Ewell
Conference coordinator
Wisconsin Arts Board/Robert E. Gard-Wisconsin Idea Foundation

Robert E. Gard was almost legendary in Wisconsin from the moment that he came to the University of Wisconsin in 1945. He was driven by the conviction that all people are fundamentally creative, and that if given encouragement, if given a few tools, the people themselves would make the plays, the poetry, the music, the dance, that would capture the meaning of American culture.

He’d gone to Cornell University to study drama with one of the great men in theater at the time, Alexander Drummond, who saw the stories of upstate New York as the raw material of theater. As a student, Gard came to believe that art-making in America must grow from personal cultural stories, from local places and communities. He brought that idea to Wisconsin. And that was a happy coincidence, for perhaps no other state at the time could have been as receptive to notions like Gard’s.

To understand why, you have to look back to the turn of the 20th century, when Governor “Fighting Bob” La Follette and University of Wisconsin President Charles Van Hise together articulated the notion that the role of a public university is to actively serve all of the people of the state; the slogan of the Wisconsin Idea was that “the boundaries of the campus are the boundaries of the state.” They believed that by enabling all of the people to have access to a fine education – whether on campus in Madison, via correspondence course or via lectures and learning on the radio – the people would be increasingly able and eager to participate in making real the ideal of democracy. Many revolutionary laws were passed in Wisconsin, all designed to make government more equitable, accountable, and participatory; but equally revolutionary, and central to the Wisconsin Idea, was university outreach, bringing the latest ideas to the people, and helping anyone to fulfill their talents. “I would have no mute, inglorious Milton in Wisconsin,” said Van Hise; “I would have everybody who has a talent have an opportunity to find his way so far as his talent will carry him.”

As early as 1911, Prof. Thomas Dickinson and his Wisconsin Dramatic Society were encouraging Wisconsonians to write their own plays; and Dickinson said, “There is absolutely no question of the organic association of the spirit of our work with La Follette progressivism. My chief interest was in the outworking of democracy, of which I considered the theatre, the workshop.” Community music and community singing were inspired and nurtured by legendary professor Edgar “Pop” Gordon. In the 1930’s, the Dean of the College of Agriculture, Chris Christensen, grew convinced that because there was “poetry as well as production on the farm,” the farm family ought to have an opportunity to express the culture of agriculture through the arts; John Steuart Curry became the first artist-in-residence in America – not in the University’s art department, but in the College of Agriculture. Curry’s encouragement inspired literally hundreds of Wisconsin farmers and their families to start painting.

Into this already-rich setting came Gard. In Grassroots Theater he tells of a playwriting workshop he’d offered for rural people; at the end of the workshop he realized that “there must be a great, free, expression. If the people of Wisconsin knew that someone would encourage them to express themselves in any way they chose, … if they knew that someone would back them and help them when they wanted help…there would be such a rising of creative expression as is yet unheard of in Wisconsin…for the whole expression would be of and about ourselves.”

Gard dedicated his life to this idea – embodied in his Wisconsin Idea Theater - and Grassroots Theater beautifully articulates his principles and convictions. By 1966, the idea was evolving. Gard’s title was now the Director of the Office of Community Arts Development in the College of Agriculture, and Gard and his colleagues saw the arts as not only vital for personal fulfillment, but for community-building as well. Gard had come to believe that newly emerging entities called community arts councils might be a key to social change. In 1969, he wrote:

"If you try, what may you expect?
First a community
Welded through art to a new consciousness of self:
A new being, perhaps a new appearance –
A people proud
Of achievements which lift them through the creative
Above the ordinary –
A new opportunity for children
To find exciting experiences in art
And to carry this excitement on
Throughout their lives –
A mixing of peoples and backgrounds
Through art; a new view
Of hope for mankind and an elevation
Of man – not degradation.
New values for individual and community
Life, and a sense
That here, in our place
We are contributing to the maturity
Of a great nation.
If you try, you can indeed
Alter the face and the heart
Of America. "

These words closed the book, The Arts in the Small Community. In the late 1960’s, the community arts council movement was exploding. There had been two arts councils in 1949; there were about 55 in 1960; there were nearly 500 by 1970. While the Arts in the Small Community advocated the creation of arts councils, it was different from other writing about arts councils in one crucial respect: it advocated integrating the arts into other community concerns.

Elsewhere, arts councils were formed as artists and cultural groups gathered to discuss strategies for mutual support. That wasn’t the only model for Gard. The Arts in the Small Community offered three case-studies of rural arts councils, one of which drew on this traditional model, but the other two did not. In one, the arts council was coupled with the region’s environmental activism and was concerned with the natural beauty of its area, signage, and more. In the other, the arts council was linked from its inception to economic development by the Extension Agent who saw creativity as vital to the region just as a ski hill and a paperboard company might be. If you scan the table of contents of this little manual ( http://www.gardfoundation.org/ > arts in the small community), you will see sections on the arts and religion, business, health, local history, cultural groups, incarcerated people, and more.

We’ve seen arts councils broaden their horizons in the past 50 years. Many are working with their educational systems, with “youth at risk,” with economic development, with downtown revitalization now. It’s common to hear arts council folk say, “…the arts in service to the whole community.”

Still, for many groups I have worked with over the years, this is a tautology for they mean: “a good community is one where there is a lot of art; I will help create more art; therefore I have helped to build a good community.”

In this symposium, we are backing up and asking, What is a good community, or a healthy community? For until we understand the perspectives of community “health,” we arts folk will still be living in that tautological world, a world which is “all about us.”

Gard loved the juxtaposition of disciplines, and it is in that spirit that we have convened this symposium to look at the role of the arts in building healthy communities. In the 1970’s Gard wrote about his participation on a committee studying the interrelationship of health and beauty in the built environment. In the 1960’s Gard explored the juxtaposition of arts and athletics. In the 1950’s Gard brought together sociologists, philosophers, radio and television folk, Extension agents and more to try and understand the creative impulse, to understand how to best craft a framework for creative social participation by all people, a framework in which people could address great human concerns such as community disintegration .

In this, he may have been influenced by his philosopher friend, Baker Brownell of Northwestern University. In 1950, Brownell wrote in The Human Community that there is a fundamental conflict in the modern era:

"On the one hand is the culture of specialism; on the other hand is the human community. Each is a kind of living, a way of doing things. Today these methods are becoming more and more divergent. They would seem to be incompatible, and the former is displacing the latter.

"The college professor, the business expert, the professional artist…usually labor in behalf of the culture of specialism. They establish terms and make new specificities of knowledge…They look at life selectively with sharp eyes, define bright bits of it, and make reality more articulate…. But the human community under their vast trampling declines, and without the community even specialism cannot survive. … I find myself asking the college professor, the business expert, and other devotees of specialism and purity to step out of their accustomed ideology…

"We must continue to start freshly with integral situations, not with conceptual terms…. Central in them, a creator of confluence as it were, is the community."

As a philosopher, Brownell explored the role the arts can play – in conjunction with technology, economics, education, art, religion – in creating the human community in a time of community dissolution. As an artist, Gard said the same thing.

If you try, you can indeed alter the face and the heart of America.

But not alone. Not as specialists.

Thus our gathering. You’ll notice that our keynote speaker is Lew Feldstein. You may recall that Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, talks about the dissolution of the “human community,” to use Brownell’s phrase. Feldstein and Putnam co-authored Better Together, a remarkable look at communities where some group has taken the lead in rebuilding community. Feldstein will talk to us about whether community still matters – or whether it’s just a nostalgic idea. And if community still matters, why? And how can people help to reverse the trends of community dissolution, and begin to build human communities?

We’ve also asked historian Bill Cronon to address us about whether, and why, history and place matter, in this globalized and tele-connected world.

Then we asked five people who are not artists to talk to us about what a “healthy” community is all about, from their perspective Listen carefully.

We need to cross boundaries. Need to move from being specialists in the arts, to people who listen to, engage with, specialists in other fields so that, together, we can help to create the truly “healthy” or “human” community of the 21st century.

That’s what this symposium is all about. My husband, who has taught in our local college Environmental Studies program, has pointed out that the place where ecosystems meet tend to be the incubation places for new life forms. Similarly, I stumbled on a book recently: The Medici Effect, by Frans Johansson; it suggests that the most important ideas may be birthed in the intersection of disparate disciplines.

"In our world it actually makes sense to combine sea urchins with lollipops, guitar riffs with harp solos, and music records with airlines…or for a person to launch a solar cell company one day and a cookie company the next. Like the creators of fifteenth-century Florence, this is how we break new ground; this is how we innovate…. All we have to do is find it … and dare to step in."

Our belief is that the community arts council of our time can be one that brings together knowledge from many places and links this knowledge to broad, creative response by all people in our communities.

Ready for big ideas? Ready for the 21st century? Read on, comment, and participate.


  1. Patricia A. ShifferdSeptember 6, 2010 at 9:12 AM

    I have read with interest the introductory essays to the upcoming conference celebrating the legacy of Robert Gard; while I can't be in Madison in person, I look forward to an on-line conversation. My comment today is to note a psper that my colleague, D. Lagerroos and I wrote (http://www.communityarts.net/readingroom/archivefiles/2006/11/converging_stre.php) in which we analyzed foundation documents from the community arts and sustainable community movements. Our conclusion was that, although the 2 movements are imperfectly integrated, they share a common set of organizing principles: equity, diversity, democracy, learning, and spirituality. To the degree that we are able to (re)build healthy communities, it is imperative that each group work openly and effectively across sectors.

  2. I had a chance to read the essays defining a healthy community that you have posted at the Gard Foundation Website, and salute the authors. Thanks for inviting me to share my thoughts. If you want to post this open letter, please feel free.

    One way of understanding your question is as an opportunity to envisage what might come to pass if fundamental moral and ethical principles were lived in practice with as much force as they are commonly advocated. If even half of the humane, caring, and ethical measures your essayists advocate were adopted as everyday practice in a community, I would give serious consideration to moving there!

    Implicit in all the essays is the metaphor of community as a human body or ecosystem, a complex of interdependent and relational systems that can't really be understood as separate components. In this kind of system, every part is different, all are necessary, and none can replace the others: the liver can't do the heart's job; the river can't take the place of the forest. Recognizing and valuing each relationship to the whole is the essential principle. To me, the Golden Rule covers it pretty well (as stated by Hillel): Do not unto others that which is hateful to yourself.

    So what I have to add to the conversation has to do with the gap that sometimes opens between intentions and actions, and how we might respond. First, I would observe that the law of unintended consequences seems to be the only one human efforts never escape. Our society is littered with the wreckage of ideas that sounded fantastic in the laboratory but played out very differently in real life. I like the way Kant said it more than two hundred years ago: “Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be carved.”

    In community development conversation now, certain beautiful words pop up again and again: sustainability, resilience, systems thinking. I want all of these things too. I just don't have tremendous faith that we know how to get them when it comes to human lives. In environmental systems, for instance, we can assert with confidence that a community that recycles will increase sustainability to the extent that it prizes re-use and minimizes environmental waste and pollution. But with the felt and relational side of human communities, it's much harder to know. Of course, we can point to past experience and hypothesize that this or that community's resilience (or evident lack of it) is due to this or that factor. Sounding smart is hindsight is really easy; but being able to extrapolate from the past doesn't necessarily improve our ability to construct the future. We are now living in a moment when the impact of randomness on our lives is awe-inspiring, and our superstitious belief in human ability to control the future is becoming evident in both its magnitude and falsity. (I'm astounded, for instance, at the extent to which financial forecasters are still turning out predictions based on past performance, and still trusted, despite their dismal record to date.) Arlene Goldbard…. CONTINUED IN NEXT COMMENT

  3. Arlene Goldbard, continued #2…The thing that sometimes worries me now is the way extremely smart and well-intentioned people continue to believe that we can plan and measure human happiness by the numbers. More often than not, when this hope rules the practices of community, developers, economists, or anyone else, before long, human beings are asked to serve the numbers: people choose those interventions easiest to measure, precisely because they can be measured. I don't think we have to look much further than our current national obsession with "teaching to the tests" to see the way human possibility is thus sacrificed.

    Underlying such ideas is a sort of idealism that easily asks others to sacrifice in the interests of a greater good. So in the current educational debate, we hear that students can do without arts education (or even without certain types of play) if that is the price of better test results, eventually leading to better jobs. In the face of this way of seeing the world, I have come to understand that the number one criterion should be whether an intervention is enjoyable, satisfying, engaging, and supportive for community members in real time. In other words, is the activity or program one is prescribing worth doing for its inherent pleasures and satisfactions? If the answer is no, I would reject it regardless of how great the promise might be of yielding measurable long-term results. So this is one place that the arts (which can also be seen as sacred play) can transform experience, as in any circumstances, people enjoy making and listening to music, dancing, and dozens of other such practices. If our schools, medical facilities, and other social institutions are infused with a sense of sacred play, an intention of making beauty and meaning, our experience of them will be so much better than is typically the case.

    I also worry sometimes about a reluctance to call out the obstacles that impede healthy communities. We can all design our ideal polity, peopled with altruistic and wise public officials, for instance. But what about the political corruption and self-dealing the news reports each week? No matter how you analogize health, it's hard to see how healthy communities can develop and persist without a willingness to notice, rebuke, and apply antidotes to the poisons in their midst. We are in a time that seems to throw up tremendous contrasts in economic and political power. Google current figures on the differential between CEO compensation and line workers' wages: how can people whose access to power and privilege is so different together create a community? One essential role of community-based and socially conscious artists' work is to notice these things, to expose them, and to call for wrongs to be righted. Without that independent voice and vision, I don't see much hope of social well-being. And I don't much see it coming from other sectors. Arlene Goldbard … CONTINUED IN NEXT COMMENT

  4. Arlene Goldbard #3……….Finally, from what I have observed, we human beings, in addition to our basic needs, have a powerful desire to see and be seen, to know and be known. Beyond the necessity of banding together to face life's basic challenges, it is this desire that creates community. All aspects of community life and infrastructure are improved when this desire is met. I have never seen a better way than participatory arts practice to meet it: when people share and make music, share stories end enact them, move their bodies to express what words cannot, create the images and sites of public memory that inscribe their experience on the world, they embody the gaze that creates community. It is not the assessing gaze of the outsider, weighing and measuring. It is not something secondary to a practical goal, but the reciprocal gaze that in itself helps people to feel seen, held, and supported. My own desire for this is fierce, and I do not think I am an exception. Without it, I don't see how we can claim to value community health, but I don't much hear it brought into the conversation. So my final comment is that we who desire and work for healthy communities have to risk the embarrassment of advocating the importance of things that can't be quantified. As Einstein famously said, "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."

  5. Maryo: I've just read the essays and all I can say is WOW! It has been a long time since I've seen such thought-provoking, innovative thinking. Congrats to you for putting all of this together. You have honored your father in a most special way.

  6. Hello Maryo & Colleagues! What an interesting and though-provoking group of essays you have all prepared for an exciting event this week!

    It seems many of us have used the term "healthy community" for years in our work through our individual sectors, but to examine that phrase/idea from so many different perspectives is timely and necessary.

    As I read each essay, two concepts continued to come to mind - value and personally meaningful experiences. Each of the sectors - technology, health care, sprituality, the arts - are working tirelessly to contribute value to the community as a whole. Why is each sector important, really? What "unarguable value" do they contribute toward a healthy community? Will the community be less healthy when one or more sector is struggling or lacking in value?

    In large part, this value is generated on individual and collective levels as the result of personally meaningful experiences. If I have experiences that are personally meaningful with the school district, my church, local businesses, in the parks, with neighbors, etc. it seems I will most likely believe my community is healthy and valuable. However, we rarely ask people to share qualitative information about their experiences in/with a community. City leaders tend to make decisions without checking in with their residents/constituents. And, in the age of technology, it seems that part of the "healthy community" experience might take place virtually.
    As humans, we're wired to seek purpose and meaning. If we find that in our community, we may perceive it as "healthy", when in reality, there may be issues. I think the health of a community is connected to the personal, social, relational and economic value it provides its residents.

    I look forward to hearing more about your discussions later this week!

  7. These essays are inspiring and lead me to reflect on the themes that are presented – technology, health, sustainability, spirituality and politics–in the context of Robert Gard’s writings. I just completed work on The Robert E. Gard Reader, with talented book designer, Shawn Simmons from Kent State University. So, I have in mind the context that Gard presented on developing community-based arts organizations to value life experiences and nurture individual expression.
    I had thought of Gard’s work as being focused on rural folks, not in cities, but in small towns and villages. That may, indeed, cover the type of stories he gathered and told; however, these essays bring forward themes that generalize Gard’s work and make it applicable to American culture in cities or in rural areas. At the core of it all is “community” and how healthy each community is.
    It is this concept of “community” that I want to talk about. In strong communities one finds the essence of democracy about which Gard wrote – respect for the common good, selfless service and creative actions and expressions.
    For over six years I’ve lived in Cleveland, Ohio, moving from Appleton, Wisconsin to live in Cleveland EcoVillage, a redeveloping neighborhood on Cleveland’s near west side. It is the first time, since my childhood on LaCrosse, Wisconsin’s north side that I have experienced community where I live. To be sure, there are warts here in the form of drugs, prostitution and boarded up, foreclosed houses; however, there is community in this multi-cultural, multi-income, multi-aged neighborhood. I love it!
    What is it about this community (Cleveland EcoVillage in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood in the City of Cleveland) that makes it community? I think it is a combination of ingredients that range from individuals to the city itself--individuals who want to make the community vibrant; a community development organization which works hard to bring residents together for a variety of activities; a city which invests in the infrastructure that makes the community a pleasant place to be. These are also the elements that I found in the essays.
    For my part, I am a market gardener in my community and a librarian at Cleveland State University. With my partners, John and Margaret, we formed a small business called EcoVillage Produce, LLC. We raise vegetables and herbs on four contiguous city land bank lots, which have been licensed to us for five years. We grow the best mixed greens in the city, I’m told, which we sell at the fledgling, local Gordon Square Farmer’s Market. And, we’ve developed relationships with neighbors.
    This neighborhood isn’t just about urban agriculture, but also about retrofitting older homes to be more energy efficient, or about the Near West Theater’s drama presentations with young people acting in plays at Hermann Park, or about Hector Vega’s ceramic tile depiction of the neighborhood mounted at the new Rapid Transit station, or twenty block clubs in Detroit Shoreway who meet to talk about issues from safety to yard sales, or renovation of an old movie theater to a triplex movie theater, or abundant local restaurants with a wide range of offerings, or about the neighborhood supermarket. It is the acknowledged richness of a community that Gard was talking about--finding identity and owning it. At this time, technology, health, sustainability, spirituality, politics and artistic expression are all part of the mix.

  8. I am working with four small, rural communities in Pennsylvania and two of them have seen the need for the Arts to be in their community. One just had a gallery opening and the other has both a vibrant gallery and a theatrical presence. These two communities are not close in distance, yet they share the same values and ideas. They will be linked via the internet with larger, more established galleries and theatrical enterprises and thus will benefit from the collaboration. I feel this is important to their economic growth and future. Thank you for all the work you do for the Arts.

  9. Such inspiring essays and comments, I wish I were able to be there for what is sure to be a vibrant dialogue! With a background in education and social work and, more recently, working for a foundation, I've been thinking a lot lately about our societal tendancy towards compartmentalizing, well, just about everything, and the possibility that true solutions lie in integration and collaboration. Hooray to you for getting the ball rolling. If I were there, the first questions I'd pose would be:

    1) It seems that a true sense of "belonging to a community" is predicated on an emotional experience of empathy for other members and thus a willingness to give of oneself. If that is the case (and the hope is to foster greater community involvement), how do we compete with people's perception of (and time dedication to) membership in online communities which are, in actuality, at least twice removed from another human. Check out this snipet on the impact of technology on our brains: "Digital Overload: Your Brain on Gadgets" http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129384107)

    2) Can an online "community" be a community that fosters health?

    3) Experts on a multitude of social and environmental issues (carbon footprinting, collapse of oil reserves...) recommend "making it local" as one common solution to slowing a variety of social ailments. Is it possible to foster a commitment to a geographical local movement as the perception of a "global" community grows? If so, how?

    4) Whether in the work sphere or social realm, our communications seem to be getting quicker and quicker and (arguably) less meaningful as the pace and quantity of information pick up. Many spiritual and art traditions are based on a slowing down; of the senses, of thinking and doing. How might we utilize the tools of the internet to inspire individuals to slow down? This pithy article said it well, "The Information Superflood..." http://www.oprah.com/spirit/Life-Coach-Martha-Becks-Tips-for-Managing-Your-Tech-Life

    timara freeman young