Gard Foundation Symposium–Our Communities: Day 1

Gard Foundation logoToday marked the beginning of The Robert E. Gard Foundation’s gathering at the The Johnson Center at Wingspread’s conference center outside Milwaukee. Announced here earlier this year, Our Communities: A Symposium on the Arts is a reflection on the state of arts/community connections on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Robert Gard’s The Arts in the Small Community.

To begin, tonight featured introductory welcomes by Roger Dower of the Johnson Foundation, George Tzougros of the Wisconsin Arts Board,  and Jane Chu, Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts.

Mr. Dower challenged the group to encourage the world of the arts to “listen” to the communities they serve, noting they “sometimes just don’t get it” and to imagine how different the work might be if it were informed by representatives of anti-poverty programs or children’s mental health providers. Mr. Tzougros noted that the Gard Foundation was not focused on the past but was conceived to carry the principles of arts/community connections forward. Ms. Chu pointed out the central role that Robert Gard’s work played in expanding the vision of the NEA to include rural communities and smaller urban areas, acknowledging that Gard held that the arts were for everyone, a vision that encouraged the NEA’s emphasis on support of the arts on the local level.

This was followed by Maryo Gard Ewell’s keynote on The Arts in the Small Community. Ms. Ewell provided a history of Robert Gard’s work as it pertained to the origins of the 1966 research report and its subsequent impact. [The full text of her presentation will later be available on the Gard Foundation website.] It is impossible to condense the essence of Gard’s thinking to a few sentences. However, some of the most important ideas are:

  • Art is for everyone. It’s not reserved for the wealthy.
  • The most powerful role of the arts is as expressions of/by/and for the people.
  • The arts can serve communities.
  • Creativity is the cornerstone of democracy.

The culminating idea of Gard’s work is the oft-quoted “If you try, you can indeed alter the face and the heart of America [through the arts].”

The evening concluded with the presentation of the Robert E. Gard Foundation Leadership Awards, given by the Foundation to an individual to celebrate their substantial commitment to fostering healthy communities through arts-based development. This year’s recipient is Patrice Walker Powell, who retired after 23 years of service in 2014 from the National Endowment for the Arts.

After joining the Endowment, Ms. Powell was appointed the director of the Expansion Arts Program with oversight of NEA-funded programs in rural, inner-city, tribal, and ethnically diverse communities. When the Expansion Arts Program came to an end in 1995, Ms. Powell was appointed to lead the local arts agency program and the Challenge America portfolio, supporting grants benefitting underserved communities. In these capacities, she was responsible for federal grants totaling nearly $60 million to rural, urban, and underserved communities across the country.

Ms. Powell was more than a government grantmaker; she was an innovator and leader in the field. As the agency began to acclimate to a reduced funding environment, NEA research showed that there were 20 States receiving five or fewer direct grants per year. Ms. Powell created a strategy that collaborated with state and local arts agencies to hold seminars on NEA funding opportunities and identify potential applicants and panelists for grant reviews. Over the course of the three-years, the number of NEA-supported projects in these states increased by 350 percent.

At the end of Ms. Powell’s tenure, she had been promoted to deputy chairman of programs and partnership overseeing grants and projects involving a national network of governmental and nonprofit partners. In 2009, she was appointed as acting chair of the Endowment and led the $50 million “stimulus” program that saved jobs in the arts and cultural sector as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Patrice Walker Powell was a leader in the field, caring for the organizations, communities, and people that she helped for over 23 years. [Text by Mitch Menchaca]

This year, in commemoration of the 5oth Anniversary of The Arts in the Small Community, a second, special Award of Excellence was presented to the National Endowment for the Arts.

In 1965, Robert Gard and the Office of Community Arts Development in the College of Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin conceived of a grand experiment—stimulating the creation of rural arts councils. At that moment, the NEA’s relationship to the Arts in the Small Community has been intertwined thanks to Leonard Bernstein, famed composer, and conductor, and one of the first members appointed to the National Council on the Arts who championed the ideas of Robert Gard and the investment in rural arts development, thus resulting in the first NEA rural grant.

Subsequently funded in 1967, the Rural Arts Program exposed small towns to a variety of creative, performing, and visual arts programs which involved locating and supporting local artists and craftsmen, and inviting professional artists to participate in activities, performances, and exhibits.

Because of its 50 year investment in rural arts programming and its dedication to ensuring every American has access to the arts in their community, no matter its size, we honor the National Endowment for the Arts with a special Robert E. Gard Foundation Award of Excellence. [Text by Mitch Menchaca]



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  2. Thanks for posting summaries of this symposium, and comments by so many great participants. Fabulous to see Patrice Walker Powell receive a well-deserved honor for her pioneering work, and to see that the community arts flame is kept alive and burning bright into the next fifty years! This work is so important – now, more than ever.