Art Works Blog

Art Works in Wisconsin

Madison, Wisconsin

Robert Gard (front left) with First Lady Lady Bird Johnson when she visited Spring Green, Wisconsin, one of the rural towns that participated in the Arts in the Small Community project in 1966-1969.  Photo courtesy University of Wisconsin-Madison archives

As a high school student, I hung out at Ag Hall at the University of Wisconsin. The Office of Community Arts Development in the College of Agriculture, directed by my dad, Robert E. Gard, was following a proud tradition in 1965 when they conceived of a grand experiment---stimulating the creation of rural arts councils. For decades, the College of Agriculture had understood that there is "culture in agriculture," indeed, the first artist-in-residence in the U.S. was housed in the Ag school, starting in 1936, inspiring farm families to paint. Gard sought funding from the new NEA for this experiment.

But what was natural in Wisconsin seemed a little strange to the fledgling NEA: was this really "art?"  National Council member Leonard Bernstein passionately championed Gard's ideas, and the first NEA rural arts grant was made. So powerful were the results in Wisconsin that First Lady Lady Bird Johnson visited Spring Green, Wisconsin, to see for herself.  The resulting little manual, The Arts in the Small Community, has been reprinted countless times, helping local arts agencies nationwide. A recent survey suggests that the culture of the "test communities" may indeed have been altered.

From c. 1950---Robert Gard (left) talking to a farm couple about writing. Photo courtesy University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives

Gard knew that everyone in Wisconsin had within themselves the stuff of poetry, dance, drama, and music. He knew that if a little guidance were made available "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 also recognized the interrelationships among art, sociology, philosophy, health, religion, business, and community progress, for he knew that community life is indivisible.

The Wisconsin Arts Board is continuing the state's tradition of exploring the interrelationship of creative ideas in the interest of building healthy communities. The Arts Board seeks insight from leaders as varied as a technology specialist, a religious leader, a social worker, a historian, an economist, a philanthropist, and a political leader in a blog that asks the question, "What is a healthy community?" Arts folk are urged to join the discussion on the Gard Foundation blog. After all, said Gard, "If you try, you can indeed alter the face and the heart of America."

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