Maryo Gard Ewell
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.