Robert Gard on Arts and Communities

When my good friend Maryo Gard Ewell asked me to write a reflection on the Gard Foundation/Americans for the Arts collaborative collection of Robert Gard’s writings (To Change the Face & Heart of America), I was more than willing. Eager would probably not be a stretch.

When I began teaching arts management, I remember Gard’s The Arts in the Small Community almost leaping off the library shelf at me. His insistence on the importance of the arts to all people and of communities to the arts resonated with me from the moment I encountered his work. I have since discovered that as a high school student in Iowa my life was transformed by a summer program he was instrumental in supporting in Wisconsin. And, as long-time readers of Engaging Matters know, I happily served on the board of the Robert E. Gard Foundation.

To prepare for this blog post I re-read what we on the Gard board affectionately call “the purple book,” this time with copious underlining and dog-earing of pages. Many themes emerge from that, and many of my most cherished ideas, among them the role of the “arts establishment” in this work (the need to pay attention to communities) and the role of the arts council. I have long held that the arts council. or as we now sometimes say–the local arts agency, is vital to the work of connecting the arts with communities.

However, for my purposes here I want to focus on just two of Gard’s important concerns. First is participation in the arts. A centerpiece of Gard’s work was the creation of opportunities for “ordinary” people to write about their own experiences and present them on stage. He was a theater person at heart. He believed that everyone should be encouraged to express themselves artistically. This was both a conviction borne out of faith in humanity and a pragmatic understanding of the importance of participation in building support for the arts. Here are just three quotes from the book that address participation:

  • The arts . . . are not reserved for the wealthy, or for the well-endowed museum the gallery, or the ever-subsidized regional professional theater. . . . The people, if shown the way, can create art in and of themselves.
  • We substituted the wonderful words joy fulfillment, comprehension, change of attitude, and selfless participation as concepts and values as good or better than the thin “professional” requirements.
  • My part is in the back country, away from the largest centers, where the hardest battle is being fought. My part and work is with the creative force that is in the people, and this creative power, developed slowly, in keeping with the life of the people, might finally swell the idea of the arts to a national spiritual crescendo.

In the end, it was this participation in creative work that Gard felt might be “the only sure way toward wide acceptance of the arts.”

The other idea I want to highlight here is Gard’s emphasis on “the grass roots.” Gard writes about this eloquently and often.

  • The springs of the American spirit are at the grass roots.
  • It is the grassroots where the essence of art
    Most joyously flourishes.
  • I do fully believe that the greatness of American arts must lie in the seeding ground of the home place.

However, and I in no way mean this as criticism, since Gard’s work focused like a laser beam on Wisconsin and, in particular, rural Wisconsin, there is a danger that today’s reader of this book might equate grass roots with rural and white. If Gard were writing and working today I have no doubt that his conception of the grass roots would include people living in both urban and rural environments. His passion was to find and tap the creative genius in all people. That is an easy case to make given the philosophical framework he presents so clearly. And, it is the case that we on the board of the Gard Foundation made in helping it broaden its focus from Wisconsin to the whole country and all of its widely disparate parts–rural communities, urban neighborhoods, and native populations.

It might seem astonishing that a man who retired in 1970 could have been so prescient about the need to involve everyone in the arts. Upon reflection, I see his convictions coming not from clairvoyance but from abiding faith in the human spirit and human potential as well as understanding of the need for the “arts establishment” to tap into that vast reservoir of creativity for its own well-being if not survival.

Thank you Mr. Gard.



Wingspread Symposium 2016 Revisited

A year ago, the Robert E. Gard Foundation, along with the Johnson Foundation, the Wisconsin Arts Board, and Americans for the Arts, sponsored a conference to consider the past, present, and future of community arts work in this country. Today, the outcomes of that conference, in reflections, written summaries, written and audio versions of the presentations, and video interviews with presenters are available on the Gard website.

This is a remarkable repository of information about a remarkable gathering. The attendees represented many (but by no means all) of the important figures in the work of connecting the arts and communities and the range of topics covered was significant.

It’s difficult to pick out a “most important” part of this record. However, one item in particular bears mention since it was not an official part of the symposium itself. For those of us with vivid memories of the Community Arts Network (thank you again, Linda Frye Burnham and Steve Durland) there is an update on the 2004 CAN Report: State of the Field. The update (Wingspread: State of the Field 2016), commissioned by the Gard Foundation, is based on the findings of the symposium and is a valuable addition to the literature of the field. (Those of you unfamiliar with the Community Arts Network can, thankfully, find the archive of its incredibly comprehensive readings here.)

The Table of Contents of the archive, found on the Gard Website, is given below.



Reflections on a Symposium

Gard Foundation logoLast week I provided daily summaries of The Robert E. Gard Foundation’s Our Communities: A Symposium on the Arts at The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread’s conference center.

To be honest I have not had the courage to go back an re-read them as I am well aware of the fact that my listing of topics and key points was without synthesis and with very little context.

With the advantage of a few days distance (and rest) it’s probably worthwhile to lay out a little more of the “sense” of the gathering. To me, there were three principal themes that emerged over the course of the three days: Equity, Structure, and Relationships. What follows is a very brief overview of each along with some pertinent and sometimes highly memorable quotes. The quotes are attributed as best I can remember, although I’m pretty sure in a couple of cases I have mis-remembered the person who said them. Please accept my apologies.

As might be expected, issues of equity raised the most heat. We by no means dealt with this adequately, but it is one of the first times, in a public forum in the arts, I’ve heard “white supremacy,” “white privilege,” and “oppression” brought forward as essential issues on multiple occasions.

Carlton Turner: “Are your policies contributing to consolidation or distribution of power?”
Roberto Bedoya:

  • “Is creative placemaking a property rights movement or a human rights movement?”
  • Paraphrase: Beware the white savior industrial complex

William Cleveland: “Story is power. The suppression of stories is oppression.”
Rosy Simas: “We” cannot equal “me and my friends.”

Through what vehicles do we do our work in the arts? At this point it’s nearly a truism that the 501(c)(3) model does not fit all situations, Indeed, it’s position as the default way of organizing in the arts is beginning to be seen as highly flawed. More flexible, more arts-appropriate, and more human/humane forms of organizing our work are essential.

Carlton Turner: Artists have been left out of the system.
Rosy Simas: Think of artists as plankton, the critical root of the food chain.
Robert Lynch: “The arts industry is ruled by fear of losing a buck.” This is different from 40 years ago when almost no one had a buck. (The second sentence is a paraphrase.)
Doug Borwick: “Has the habit of staff overwork in arts organizations gotten in the way of building relationships with communities? Or has reluctance to build relationships encouraged managerial overwork?”

Hands down, the most consistently raised topic was relationships–the need for our work to be based on/built upon them. The attendees, almost to an individual, recognized that the core of working with communities is relationship building. This is hardly surprising, but the pervasiveness of the awareness was telling.

Roger Dower: “How might [programs/outcomes] be different if an anti-poverty program was at your table?”
David O’Fallon:

  • “We must see communities as resources.”
  • “First the relationship, then the program.”

The panel made up of Savannah Barrett, Tatiana Hernandez, and Laura Zabel was chock full of good quotes, but I can’t remember who gets credit for which:

  • “Expand the development of circles of relationships to open up organizations.”
  • Paraphrase: Utilize joy as a connector and facilitator
  • Paraphrase: Develop a strategy of belonging
  • Paraphrase: Awe and wonder are the gateway to transformation (though not transformation itself).

Michael Rohd: “Sitting in the dark with a group of strangers is not, by itself, transformative.”

And, of course Robert E. Gard’s words were everywhere in almost every presentation. But two with which I was not previously familiar continue to stand out to me almost a week after we left the conference center:

  • “The springs of the American spirit are at the grass roots.”
  • Paraphrase: We need to move from a focus on “professionalism” to a focus on joy and meaning.

The Robert E. Gard Foundation is grateful to so many for their support for the Symposium. We are also deeply indebted to all the participants who gave so much of themselves in presenting, listening, and contributing to the conversations. The Foundation will be spending the next few months attempting to make what happened in those few days available in as many ways and in as much detail as possible.



Gard Foundation Symposium–Our Communities: Day 3

Gard Foundation logoToday was the final day of The Robert E. Gard Foundation’s Our Communities: A Symposium on the Arts at The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread’s conference center.

New Ideas for a World in Transition: A Next Generation of Work
Savannah Barrett, Tatiana Hernandez, and Laura Zabel explored elements of structure and operations from the perspective of the youngest generation of community arts workers. This was for many a highlight of the conference. All three emphasized experimentation and an entrepreneurial spirit as hallmarks of the next wave of practice in the field, with relationship building and maintenance as the foundation. In addressing the relative merits of nonprofit organizational structures, Laura Zabel said structures are tools. “Nonprofit structures are a hammer. I don’t want to talk about hammers. Some projects require a hammer. Others would be destroyed by one.”

A previously heard concept, developing a “strategy of belonging,” was cited as being particularly meaningful to young arts leaders. Maintaining a  focus on fostering “awe and wonder” was seen as important and a vital element even in projects identified as serving more mundane purposes like economic development.

Concluding Remarks: Legacy, Landscape, and Pathways
Americans for the Arts President Robert Lynch was the last scheduled presenter. Working from notes on each Symposium presentation, he provided a wrap-up highlighting themes of the gathering and providing a reminder of the history of the field that has brought us to this point–including homage to Gard’s influences, mentors, and other “heroes of the arts in the U.S.”

The Symposium concluded with final observations about conferences themes and lessons from each of the approximately forty participants.

The Robert E. Gard Foundation is deeply grateful to Americans for the Arts, Grantmakers in the Arts, The Johnson Foundation, The Racine Arts Council, the Wisconsin Arts Board, and Wisconsin Friends of the Arts for their support which made the Symposium possible.

The Gard Foundation Board of Directors is developing plans to make texts, videos, some audio recordings as well as ancillary materials available to the public. Details will be provided on the Foundation’s website:



Gard Foundation Symposium–Our Communities: Day 2

Gard Foundation logoYesterday I began my reporting from The Robert E. Gard Foundation’s Our Communities: A Symposium on the Arts at The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread’s conference center. Today was a full day presenting the history and current status of community/arts relationships and an introduction to thoughts about future directions.

As you may well imagine, there is virtually no way to do justice to the presentations and discussion in a blog post or even a series of them. What follows are some highlights and even these are superficial and dangerously out of context. My apologies in advance to presenters whom I have shortchanged and/or misrepresented in what follows. It is our hope to have the text of as many of the presentations as possible available (eventually) on the Gard Foundation website.

Where We’ve Been
1900s Community Arts – Maryo Ewell
The Rise of the Institutions – Diane Mataraza
Growth of Community Arts – E’vonne Coleman
The morning began with a review of some aspects of the history of arts/community connections in the U.S. Maryo Gard Ewell presented an overview of community arts work from the beginning of the 20th Century up to the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts. She cited W.E.B. Du Bois’ observation that intercultural communication can be facilitated by art as an expression of those cultures, the Settlement House movement’s use of arts as a tool for expressing self- and community-identity, and early 20th-Century community pageants as examples of art serving as a tool for community improvement. She also highlighted the tension over divergent meanings of the sentence “The arts are for everyone.” As used by John D. Rockefeller, 3rd in “The Performing Arts: Problems and Practice” (1965) it placed an emphasis on elite arts for the masses. Robert Gard, on the other hand, used the concept to mean of, by, and about the people.

Diane Mataraza examined the origins of the National Endowment for the Arts. She discussed the inherent tension between support of large budget arts institutions (which in the 1960’s were suffering from significant debt) and the political realities that necessitated a broad-based distribution of funds. One result was the mandate that a significant portion of NEA funds be redistributed to the states (which spawned the creation of many state arts councils) and which in turn, due to state-level politics, further decentralized funding by redistributing budgets to the local/community level.

E’Vonne Coleman presented the history of the NEA’s Expansion Arts program, a vitally important 24-year program designed to support the cultural expression of artists and communities of color. EA was implemented as another response to the need to build political support for the Endowment. Staffers worked from a belief that agency funds “were their money [the communities that received it] and the NEA’s job was to give it back to them.” The closure of the program in 1996, while some elements were spun off to other efforts, resulted in the closure of a number of grassroots arts organizations serving communities of color.

Where We Are
Democracy for art forms and artists – Carlton Turner
Support for and from Artists in Community Settings – Barbara Shaffer Bacon
Authentic Voices – David O’Fallon

The second half of the morning focused on the current situation, especially the role of artists in community work. Carlton Turner noted that we are shaped by the cultures around us and that art is not the same thing as culture but that it is always a reflection of the cultures out of which it arises. (In this regard, he noted that art for art’s sake is impossible because of the art cannot be separated from its underlying culture(s).) Mr. Turner also noted that artists were (and are) left out of the development of the nonprofit arts infrastructure, a particularly troubling reality since it is artists who are the visionaries who could address community needs and interests.

Barbara Shaffer Bacon talked about the work of artists in community settings (as opposed to isolated studio work) and noted the need for training for these artists in how to work with communities. She pointed out that locally-focused projects can be difficult to scale due to the work being tailored to the unique interests of communities and the unique abilities of the participating artists.

David O’Fallon presented some principles on which to base successful community arts work.

  • Never create a program without being connected with the people and organizations on the ground. The relationships come first, then the programs.
  • Evaluate programs based on the strength of the relationships created. This can be measured by the participants’ commitment to the program and continuation in it over time.
  • Community based programs should be led by the people they are for.

A particularly important observation [NB: which cannot be adequately represented in this blog post] is that community work necessitates a biological (or ecosystem) approach to structure (in which every element is essential to the success of the whole) as opposed to the dominant mechanical/industrial structures that characterize most nonprofit arts organizations.

Envisioning the Future
Systems that Need to Continue and Be Supported; Systems that Need to Change or Be Redefined; New Systems that Need to Arise
– David O’Fallon, facilitator
Provocateurs: Bill Cleveland, Maria de Leon, Michael Rohd, Roberto Bedoya, Rosy Simas

The afternoon was a free form discussion of “what ifs” that was designed to address the changes that would be necessary to support more effective arts/community partnerships. It emphasized the role of artists in arts/community connections.

One fascinating metaphor that organized discussions early in the afternoon was of artists as plankton. While that may initially sound demeaning, the point was that, as plankton are essential to the well-being of whales, artists are essential to the functioning of a healthy arts ecosystems and threats to them are a threat to the industry as a whole.

Other topics raised were the central issue of white supremacy in discussions of cultural equity and the need to promote ethical behavior and listening/learning to and about other cultures as key to successfully working with communities.

The afternoon concluded with William Cleveland presenting a powerful essay on stories–stories of people’s lives and experiences–as power and the suppression of stories as a principal indicator of oppression.