Maryo Gard Ewell: Who Walks with You?

February 21st, 2008

Email This Page Email This Page Filed under: — Lynne Elizabeth @ 9:43 am

A speech presented by Maryo Gard Ewell at the Utah Arts Council’s Change Leader Institute, November 13, 2007

A Memory by Walter Marsden

Walter Marsden painted this image, "A Memory," under the tutelage of John Steuart Curry

It’s exciting to me that our topic today is ethics. Mostly at conferences, we talk about management, and good management is essential, of course. But how can you talk about management, really, until you can place it in a larger context which allows you to choose a path (which provides a context for good management) that is right and moral?

We all have a fire in our belly, a drive that is almost religious, for this work. This passion keeps us in the field despite long hours, low pay, the fact that we rarely see the true impact of our work.

And we have an array of fine management techniques available to us.

The “fire in the belly” is about you and what is at your innermost core, your most private place. The management techniques have to do with your organization.

What’s often missing, though, is the discussion of social ideas, the big values that we may share with others, which provide a bridge between you and your organization.

Talking about shared values, about shared social ideas, means talking about big things: the meaning of what it is to be a human being. Of what it is to be an American or a citizen of Utah. About questions of how we live together well. Of meta-ideas like democracy and justice.

I want to invite us this morning to think about three of these big ideas. For one thing, talking with others about your social faith helps prevent burnout and loneliness. For another, it lets you see clearly where your personal North Star is, and how to use your compass to steer you in the correct direction. And there’s a pragmatic element, too: we can develop better partnerships, because, with clarity about our biggest reasons for being, we can better notice who else shares those reasons. Our slogans like “more arts for more people” may actually be off-putting (because they suggest that our ends are “more arts,” and it’s easy for others to say “Well, more arts is a nice commodity, which we’ll attend to after we get the literacy thing solved.”) If, however, we can draw from big ideas, if we say that our work is ultimately about exploring what it means to be an American, it’s a whole lot harder to ignore us.

This is all hard to think about. We mean to think about it, maybe journal about it, when we get time. And we never have time, so we simply don’t do it.

But if we don’t pause to reflect on, to articulate our most private beliefs, then we will always be personally lonely, beleaguered and full of doubts, and our organizations will be rudderless and vulnerable.

How do we start this social reflection process? From where do we draw our personal and organizational strength? Do you remember that Greek myth about Hercules wrestling Antaeus, the strong man? Hercules threw him to the ground with his best wrestling technique, but noticed that Antaeus always leaped up with his strength redoubled. Hercules realized that Antaeus was drawing strength from the earth (and indeed, it turns out that Gaia, the earth, was Antaeus’ mother, and gave her son strength), so Hercules won the match by holding Antaeus in the air and wresting his power away. How do we find that place where we go to draw strength?

For me, placing ourselves on a historical continuum does that. There are some ideas that are so big and so true that they remain constant through time, even though the environment, public tastes and habits, economies, politics, organizations and their strategic plans change or go away. What are these big ideas, these big organizing principles, for you?

Who are the people who embodied these ideas, and who are, therefore, your ancestors?

Do you recall that, in the late ’60s, people were reading Alex Hailey’s Roots? I think the notion there was that if you could identify your literal ancestors, you could find your voice. If we can identify our spiritual ancestors, get to know them, then they walk with us and guide us; they understand what we are trying to do; they give us courage. They ask hard questions, too, and keep us on track. And thinking of these big idea in terms of the people who embody them really makes this discussion about the right thing to do a little easier. When I think about Percy MacKaye, for instance, one of the people who walks with me, I’m really meaning, “One of the things that my life and work are about, is exploring art’s role in a democracy.” I can’t let Percy down. By framing it this way, I remind myself that my work is drawn from the past, and shapes the future.

And when you know that you stand on the shoulders of the giants who have come before, you will also know that on your shoulders will the visionaries of the future stand. Your work is that important.

Now, I know that you Change Leaders come from a variety of backgrounds – parks and recreation, theater, business, and each of your types of organizations has its own history complete with founding visionaries, and you probably know about them. But since a number of Change Leaders are local arts center and local arts agency folks, I’ll just tell the institution-based story of those organizations known as local arts agencies.

In the early 1940s, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was home to a number of arts organizations. And it had an active Junior League. The national League was concerned with the arts, and Winston-Salem brought Virginia Lee Comer of the national League to Winston-Salem to analyze the cultural life of the community and make recommendations for how it could be improved. She looked at facilities – and had the breadth of mind to recognize that churches, union halls, and other non-traditional spaces were good facilities for the arts. She looked at opportunities for arts organizations and their audiences in Winston-Salem and considered how they might be more effective, and she considered things that Winston-Salem was lacking. (Perhaps this was the nation’s first cultural plan.) The local League set aside $7,200 to form an arts council, and in 1948 the time was ripe for this to happen. It was formed to serve the existing arts organizations and to help grow the arts in general. The arts council undertook joint fundraising for the groups. A common arts calendar. A date clearinghouse. A newsletter. Shared arts facilities. Advocacy. Gatherings to discuss issues. Management training. And more. Virginia Lee Comer thought big – maybe even bigger than some arts councils today think. In 1944 Virginia Lee Comer wrote a manual, “The Arts and Our Town.” In it she said:

[There should be] all aspects of participation in the arts and also opportunities for appreciation of them, and [in the survey we] included agencies whose sole purpose is to provide cultural opportunity, such as museums, and those whose programs may touch cultural fields, such as radio stations and civic clubs. In addition, organizations of large groups of people such as housing projects, unions, churches, etc, have been included since they are channels through which large numbers can be informed of existing facilities and services and may themselves have developed activities.

Virginia Lee Comer
in Gibans, Nina Freedlander, The Community Arts Council Movement: History, Opinions, Issues, New York, Praeger, 1982, p. 21.

By 1956, there were 55 community arts councils. By 1967, there were 450. Then came the National Endowment for the Arts which gave money to states, which in turn spurred the creation of local community arts agencies. This, coupled with the frenzy of the bicentennial in 1976, inspired the creation of many, many more. By 1982, there were 1,000. Today, Americans for the Arts estimates that there may be as many as 5,000.

So community arts councils and their people trace their ancestry to visionaries in Winston-Salem and to the Junior League. Virginia Lee Comer walks with the local arts agency folk.

Still, institutions change with time. The RAND corporation and many others are beginning to notice that the for-profit and non-profit worlds are looking more and more alike. People are saying, “Isn’t there a different way to run an arts organization than with the traditional board of directors?” People are saying, “What about church choirs, rock ‘n roll bands, writers’ clubs – they are arts organizations too!” Grantors are saying, “What’s wrong with giving grants to for-profits?” Institutions, and institutional structures, are simply means to ends; they are not the ends themselves. So we mustn’t confine our search for ancestors to just the progenitors of our types of organization, or to our arts administration field.

I’d like to talk about three big ideas today and introduce you to some of the stories that place us in the sweep of history, and to people that, to me, are giants who remind me of the stories, who walk with me, and who help guide me. The three ideas are:

  1. Democracy
  2. Your place and its people
  3. Community building

Democracy

Let’s think about democracy. I mean, American democracy where the giant idea has, for us, three parts: A) equality of access to all of the arts, B) equality of opportunity to participate in art-making and cultural expression, and C) the right to participate in making the kind of world we want to live in.

A. equality of access

First let’s look at the story of access by audiences: that all people should be in the audiences for all of the arts. In the early 1800s, Josiah Holbrook of Massachusetts started discussion groups of neighbors to talk about new ideas – maybe they weren’t so different from our current book groups. The Lyceum Association formed from this in 1830, and there were 3,000 such groups by 1850. Starting as a grassroots movement, some of the groups started paying professors and other professional people to speak to them. In 1867, the parent group became the Redpath Lyceum and used the railroad to define the circuit of the speakers, creating “underserved areas” that weren’t served by the railroad; the movement was no longer really a grassroots effort. Meanwhile, Dr. John Heyl Vincent was experimenting with ways of teaching the bible at Chautauqua, New York, in 1874. Using materials that he distributed, Chautauqua circles sprang up. Now, Keith Vawter of the Redpath Bureau was a smart man, and he saw that the Lyceum speakers and artists could be sent to Chautauqua camps and facilities; and if a Chautauqua circle didn’t have a facility, well, a tent could be supplied. Perhaps this was the birth of block booking. Certainly in the 1940’s Columbia Artists Management took this idea and ran with it, creating the Community Concerts circuits. This is very abbreviated story of “arts for the people,” but it adds Josiah Holbrook, Rev. Vincent, and Keith Vawter to Virginia Lee, walking with us. A good group.

B. equality of opportunity

Now let’s look at who gets to make art, which takes us further into our investigating of arts and democracy: arts of and by the people. Since we believe in democracy, shouldn’t Everyman have an opportunity to participate?

Portrait of Alfred Arvold

Portrait of Alfred Arvold that hangs in the Lincoln Log Cabin room today. Photo by Maryo Gard Ewell

You surely know the name of Jane Addams – her Hull House in Chicago well known. It’s a “settlement house,” a movement that took hold about the turn of the 20th century. Jane Addams believed

that Everyman should make art. We know about settlement houses as social service providers; but do we also realize that immigrants were encouraged to pursue their traditional arts and to pass them on to the next generation at the settlement houses? Or that settlement houses had art galleries and even theater groups associated with them? No one would be turned away from classes or from participating if they wanted to participate. Indeed, the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts claims Jane Addams as their primary ancestor, for this is their mantra, too.

Jane Addams’ name is synonymous with this social reform movement at the start of the 20th century, but the movement was not limited to urban areas. In North Dakota, Alfred Arvold, who was on the theater department faculty at what’s now called North Dakota State University, and who was partly paid by the Extension service, had this to say in 1923:

There are literally millions of people in country communities today whose abilities along various lines have been hidden, simply because they have never had an opportunity to give expression to their talents.

Alfred Arvold
Arvold, Alfred, The Little Country Theater, New York, MacMillan, 1923, p. 19

Arvold was a big man, people remember, and they remember he had an ego to match his size. He loved to wear opera cloaks and top hats, and emerge dramatically out of a Fargo blizzard. You might think he’d jump at the chance to have a state-of-the-art theater plant on campus, which he probably could have had. He turned down the opportunity, for he recognized that the young people studying theater with him at the North Dakota agricultural college would be returning to small, even tiny, towns in North Dakota, and he wanted them to return home knowing that they could create a perfectly usable theater right there in town, be it in a basement, a barn, a town hall, or someone’s yard. So Arvold and his students constructed the Little Country Theater, a very simple space which anyone could emulate back home.

He’d been influenced by his years in Wisconsin at the University. In the upper midwest, the progressive populist political movement spawned the likes of Governor Fighting Bob LaFollette in Wisconsin and one of LaFollette’s ideas was that the University of Wisconsin should and could make the state a better place – its economy better, its self-government more healthy – by providing access to the newest ideas to all Wisconsinites and by helping all Wisconsinites pursue their interests and develop their talents. Correspondence courses were conceived in Wisconsin, WHA radio began broadcasting to deliver ideas in philosophy, chemistry, labor relations and literature to people throughout the state.

ew_curry-w-christensen-mural.jpg
John Steuart Curry with mural – Curry was the artist in residence for the College of Agriculture, and this is a painting he made of Dean Christensen in, well, a cornfield! Photo courtesy Archives, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Charles Van Hise was the visionary president of the University of Wisconsin who collaborated with Governor LaFollette (his college roommate) to make this idea a reality. He was a geologist, not especially interested in poetry, as far as I could find out; yet he put poetry up there with chemistry and labor relations within the framework of the Wisconsin Idea. President Van Hise said:

I would have no mute, inglorious Milton in this state. I would have everybody who has a talent have an opportunity to find his way so far as his talent will carry him…

University of Wisconsin Pres. Charles Van Hise Howe, Frederic C., Wisconsin, An Experiment in Democracy, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912, p. 142

A later president, in the early 1920’s, was Glenn Frank. He was interested in theater, and during his administration, the Extension division was especially supportive of Wisconsinites who wanted to write and produce plays that were relevant to their community and to their lives. Calling this type of theater “folk drama,” in 1920 President Frank said:

There’s a gap somewhere in the soul of the people that troops into the theater but never produces a folk drama … The next great dramatic renaissance in America will come when the theater is recaptured from the producers by the people, when we become active enough in mind and rich enough in spirit to begin the creation of a folk drama and a folk theater in America.

University of Wisconsin Pres. Glenn Frank
Gard, Robert E., Grassroots Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in America, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1955, p. 95-96;
reprinted 1999.

All of the colleges at the University of Wisconsin took the Wisconsin Idea seriously, but no one took it more seriously than did the College of Agriculture. Dean Chris Christensen was a visionary, who explicitly reminded people that there is a culture of agriculture, not just a business. He had a notion that farmers and farm family members could honor, explore and express this culture if they had the opportunity to paint, and he conceived of the idea of having an artist-in-residence in the College of Agriculture to help rural people do just that. Taking the advice of his friend Grant Wood, Dean Chris identified John Steuart Curry, then of Westport, Connecticut, as the man he wanted for the job, and he took the train to Connecticut to offer Curry the job in 1936. So the first artist-in-residence of any university in the country was at the University of Wisconsin – and not in the art department, but in the College of Agriculture. Curry’s job was to be available to anyone who wanted to paint, to help them put their personal vision on paper, cardboard, or the side of a barn. Curry started a significant movement in rural Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin Regional Art Program continues to this day.

Next evolved the idea of a writer-in-residence, empowering Everyman to write, just as Curry was empowering Everyman to paint. Robert Gard was hired in 1945 with a joint position in the Department of Speech and the College of Agriculture. Here is a description from his 1955 book, Grassroots Theater, telling us how he conceived the idea for the Wisconsin Rural Writers Program (also continuing into the present as the Wisconsin Regional Writers Program). I’ve taken the liberty of turning Gard’s story – almost verbatim – into a little script for our Change Leaders Readers Theater to perform for you:

Robert Gard in 1955

Robert Gard, 1955. Photo courtesy Archives, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Narrator: The year was 1948. My phone rang. Wakelin McNeil, 4-H Ranger, was on the line.

McNeil: There are nine people from rural Wisconsin who took up my offer for 4-H leaders to learn creative writing.

Robert Gard: I wish I’d known they were coming today. I’m pretty busy.

McNeil: One of the women has thirteen children.

Gard: A farm woman with thirteen children has time to come to Madison and talk about writing?

McNeil: She’s here.

Gard: All right, I’ll see them right now. Where?

Narrator: I found the nine people in a hot room that looked out on the slope down to Lake Mendota. There were eight women and one boy. They waited for me to say something, and as I paused a moment looking at them I forgot that they had come to Madison to talk about the technical processes of creative writing. They became, instead, a symbol of people I had encountered in my wanderings, people who knew a wordless appreciation of the theater that was life.

Gard: You are like a group of my neighbors when I was a kid down in Kansas.

Farm woman: You remind me a little bit of a neighbor of mine up in Manitowoc County. He’s a farmer. Not really a very good farmer.

Gard: Why did you come?

Farm woman: I don’t know exactly. Except that we’ve heard that you want people to write about their own places and the folks they know well. I think I could do that.

Gard: Tell me about yourselves. Where did you come from and what kind of places are they?

Narrator: And then began one of the most incredible experiences I ever had. These nine persons stayed at the University for three days; and every day about 9:00 in the morning we would start talking together. And as we talked our lives and the struggle in them emerged to lie against the whole fabric of our native places; and as we talked, hour after hour, a kind of fantastic play that was like life itself began to emerge and to encompass us all within its spaceless and formless self. There were times when we would speak, not as ourselves, but as imaginary characters that grew from our talk of people and events that were as real as the earth itself. The whole affair was a kind of dramatic ecstasy in which we were both the actors and the audience, the dancers and the music.

When the three days were over, it was as though a kind of dream had ended, with no more explanation than that with which it had begun. Then we awoke suddenly and realized that we had hardly mentioned the processes of writing at all and that, instead of a partly completed manuscript tucked in pocket or purse, we had only a confused but terribly exhilarating sense of something that had stirred our lives.

Gard: I have met with hundreds of groups like this one, and I have seen hundreds of plays, but I have never had a deeper sense of theater than we have had together.

Farm woman: I think it was because we all had something to express, and we did express it, and maybe the memory of it is somehow better than the written play.

Gard: I wish there were more persons like yourselves.

Farm woman: Mr. Gard, there are hundreds and thousands of rural men and women who live on the land and love the land and who understand the true meaning of the seasons and man’s relationship to man and to his God.’

Gard: If that is so, the plays they send to me don’t reflect such an appreciation.’

Narrator: She replied that she thought one reason the plays reflected little poetic appreciation of the area was because everything was made to seem too complex, too technical, too difficult. She said 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 they were free of scenery and stages and pettiness that plays we do seem so full of, if they knew that someone would back them and help them when they wanted help, it was her opinion that there would be such a rising of creative expression as is yet unheard of in Wisconsin, and it would really all be a part of the kind of theater we had had these past three days, for the whole expression would be of and about ourselves.

Robert E. Gard
Gard, Robert, Grassroots Theater, p. 214-217

So now, walking with us and with Virginia Lee Comer and Josiah Holbrook and Keith Vawter and Reverend Vincent are Robert Gard and Alfred Arvold, President Van Hise and President Frank.

C. right to make the kind of world we want

But “arts in a democracy” has a third aspect. Yes, access by all people to be in the audiences for the arts. Yes, the right of all people to participate in art-making and in expressing their cultural values, and in giving voice to their thoughts in a creative manner.

But the third, and perhaps most important, notion is the idea of the arts illuminating democracy itself.

Percy MacKaye was a playwright who thought a lot about what the arts could do to further democracy. Do you recall in high school, when you studied Shakespeare, you learned that the jester was the character who told reflected reality, who told the truth about what things meant? Well, MacKaye believed that the theater could play this role in communities. He said this in 1912:

The Civic Theater idea, as a distinctive issue, implies the conscious awakening of a people to self-government in the activities of its leisure. To this end, organization of the arts of the theater, participation by the people in these arts (not mere spectatorship), a new resulting technique…dedication in service to the whole community; these are chief among its essentials, and these imply a new and nobler scope for the art of the theater itself. Involving, then, a new expression of democracy, the Civic Theater – in the meaning here used – has never existed in the past, and has not been established in the present.

Percy MacKaye
MacKaye, Percy, The Civic Theatre, New York, Mitchell Kennerley, 1912, p. 15

He believed that a civic theater would be a kind of laboratory or crucible of democracy, where ideas of concern to people in the community could be creatively tried out, examined, discussed. It would be subsidized by local government for this purpose, and would be free of having to make money, for surely in a democracy local government would want the people to explore ideas.

Ages of Man Steps

The Ages of Man Steps lead from Arvold's Lincoln Log Cabin room to the attic, where the Little Country Theatre stored props and sets. Photo by Maryo Gard Ewell.

Alfred Arvold, whom we met earlier, believed in this too. His idea of a community center was a place where science, art, recreation and government would creatively co-exist; he saw things in a wholistic way and didn’t want to create lines differentiating these activities. Indeed, above his Little Country Theater in the administration building at North Dakota State University he reconstructed the interior of the cabin in which Abraham Lincoln was born. If you go there today (it’s on the top floor of the administration building and it has been preserved, complete with its Blue Willow dinnerware but, sadly fire code only allows a handful of people in the room at one time) you will see that it’s a meeting room, a dining room, and a Green Room. After the show, he’d invite the whole audience to have a meal together with the actors or the visiting artists, talking about the implications of the show as well as engaging in general neighborly conversation. He thought that if they were surrounded by reminders of Abraham Lincoln, people would remember that art and conversation are all at their most meaningful within the framework of democracy.

Arvold must have known Percy MacKaye; they were contemporaries and they shared a vision. Perhaps it was this insight of MacKaye’s that inspired the construction of the Lincoln Log Cabin room:

True democracy is vitally concerned with beauty, and true art is vitally concerned with citizenship.

Percy MacKaye
MacKaye, Percy, “Art and Democracy” in The Playhouse and the Play and Other Addresses Concerning the Theatre and Democracy in America, New York, Macmillan, 1909, p. 190

I don’t believe that Percy MacKaye knew Rachel Davis-Dubois, but if he had met her, I suspect they’d have a lot to say to one another. Rachel was no relation to W.E.B. DuBois, but she was a close friend and colleague of his. She was a Quaker schoolteacher in New York City in the 1930s and 40s, and she saw a great deal of cultural conflict between children of different ethnic and national backgrounds. In her book, Get Together Americans, she offered an idea that was new at the time – using the folk arts and cultural traditions to help people look at how each other sees the world. She also may have been the first person to use the term “cultural democracy.” In 1943 Rachel Davis-Dubois said:

The melting pot idea, or “come-let-us-do-something-for-you” attitude on the part of the old-stock American was wrong. For half the melting pot to rejoice in being made better while the other half rejoiced in being better allowed for neither element to be its true self…. The welfare of the group…means [articulating] a creative use of differences. Democracy is the only atmosphere in which this can happen, whether between individuals, within families, among groups in a country, or among countries. This kind of sharing we have culled cultural democracy. Political democracy – the right of all to vote – we have inherited…. Economic democracy – the right of all to be free from want – we are beginning to envisage…. But cultural democracy – a sharing of values among numbers of our various cultural groups – we have scarcely dreamed of. Much less have we devised social techniques for creating it.

Rachel Davis-Dubois
Davis-Dubois, Rachel, Get Together Americans: Friendly Approaches to Racial and Cultural Conflicts through the Neighborhood-Home Festival, New York, Harper and Bros., 1943 P. 5-6

Now look at all the great people who are walking with us! And I haven’t even introduced you to W. E. B. DuBois himself, nor to Hallie Flanagan of the Federal Theater, nor to scores of other people whose lives were all about the role that the arts play and one of these days could play, in helping democracy in America fully realize its potential.

Can you imagine talking with them? I have even invented personalities for them, and to be honest, in sleepless nights, when I feel as though the sane thing to do would be to give up, Alfred blusters in with his top hat and opera cloak and paces the room and bullies me into remembering what I am here for. And Rachel, in her schoolmarmish way , sits on the bed and reminds me that cultural democracy might still be “scarcely dreamed of,” but perhaps my generation may make it happen, and what am I doing to help make that possible? And Percy rushes in, in a big hurry to get to his next meeting, and reminds me that

Little Country Theater postcard

Postcard of Little Country Theatre given to the author by Mason Arvold. Date unknown.

True democracy is vitally concerned with beauty, and true art is vitally concerned with citizenship

and I remember why I do what I do, and why it is essential for the building of America, and I give thanks to them.

Democracy. That’s a big idea.

Your Place And Its People

Now, let’s talk about a second possible big idea that we embody: the love of place and the people who live there.

Walk through a small town or a city neighborhood with a local arts person. You will hear about local history, architecture, myths, traditions, the migration of peoples, the beauty of the landscape, the places that mean something, or in other times have meant something, to the people who live there. You’ll hear about good mayors and bad, you’ll learn that “there used to be a sheep ranch where this shopping center is now,” you’ll learn about what matters to people. Local arts people will let you know in every way they can that their place, like no other place, is naturally and culturally sacred. It is the most amazing place, with the most extraordinary peoples, in the entire world.

Wallace Stegner said something like, “no place is a place until it has had a poet,” and it is our work that creates this poetry of place. Frederick Koch was a North Carolinian who believed that if America is to realize her potential as a great cultural force in the world, America’s arts must be about real Americans, drawn from personal experience, and that of their places. Where President Frank came to this idea from the perspective of a visionary educator, Koch came at it as a playwright. In about 1920 Frederick Koch said:

In the making of an American drama, we need to cherish the locality. If it be faithfully interpreted, it will show us the way to the universal. If we can see the lives of those about us with understanding imagination, why may we not interpret them in significant images for all?

Frederick Koch
Patten, Marjorie, The Arts Workshop of Rural America: A Study of
the Rural Arts Program of the Agricultural Extension Service
, New York, Columbia University Press, 1937, p 69

Creatively capturing our place, the most important acre or acres on the face of this earth. Capturing the sounds, the cooking smells, conversations, concerns, passions, of those who have lived in this place before, and passed it on.

Passion for place is hardly a new idea. In Athens, 500 BC, young men becoming citizens had to take an oath of allegiance to their community. In part, the oath said:

We will never bring disgrace to this our city…. We will fight for the ideal and sacred things of the city, both alone and with many; we will strive unceasingly to quicken the public’s sense of duty. Thus, in all these ways we will transmit this city, not only, not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.

Athenian Oath
http://www.nlc.org/about_cities/cities_101/146.aspx
downloaded 11/17/07

Participants in the Village Improvement movement of the 1830’s in New England set about banning billboards so that people could better contemplate the beauty of a place. In the middle of the 19th century, Frederick Law Olmstead, the famous landscape architect, suggested that the finest, most beautiful land should be set aside as public space; and the City Beautiful movement, for the following half-century, captured the same idea, that public buildings should be the most beautiful of buildings. Public art commissions are not a new idea; they began in Boston in the 1890’s, placing fine sculptural pieces to remind the public that this place, our place, is important – pieces that say “This is where you are. Something happened here. Someone lived here. Think about this place and what it means.”

Place. Is it natural? Is it cultural? Does it matter? Can’t it be both? Alfred Arvold was so passionate about Fargo, North Dakota, and so passionate about beauty in place-making, that he had his drama students plant lilacs each spring. He envisioned that the highway from Fargo to Grand Forks would be lined with lilacs on both sides, all 80 miles. Why should natural beauty be here, and manmade beauty be there? Why should they not blur, interpreting a place and its meaning?

Alfred would have loved this Dakota Declaration of Identify, written in 1989 for the North and South Dakota centennial celebration. Perhaps he even sat on the bed of the person who authored it and whispered it in his or her ear:

As Dakotans, we declare this to be our cultural identify:

We are a people whose spirit is shaped by the land and tied to the seasons. Time is marked by the cycles of planting and harvesting and migrations of wildlife. Landscape is an integral part of our being.

We are a people whose loyalty belongs to our neighbors. Climate and geographic distance often hinder our joining together, yet our sparse population intensifies our belief in each other and the value of the individual. Everyone and everything is closely related.

We are a people whose individual ethnic heritage is maintained and valued. Sovereign nations of Native Americans, descendants of pioneers, and recent immigrants possess and preserve distinctive cultural traditions. We strive to understand and respect the diversities of all Dakota cultures.

We are a people whose existence is perpetuated by faith. Our spirituality gives us a common bond with humanity and strengthens our relationship with natures. Through respect and love of the land, we strive to maintain a quality environment for generations to come.

We are a people whose contribution to world culture is on our own terms of excellence. We create, we interpret, and we present art within the Dakota framework, telling the world of our sense of place.

We are a people whose quality of life depends upon our artistic expressions. We believe the arts influence desires, beliefs, values, and character of our people.

The Dakota landscape and spirit are reflected in our art.

Declaration of Dakota Cultural Identify,
North Dakota and South Dakota Arts Councils and Humanities Councils, 1989

Our home. The home of people who have been here before us. That’s a big idea.

So now, in addition to Virginia Lee, in addition to Rachel Davis-Dubois and Alfred Arvold, Percy MacKaye and Robert Gard and all the others, we also have walking with us the citizens of ancient Athens, the people of the Dakotas, and everyone who passionately loves the place they live.

Building A Good Community

And what else are we fundamentally about? Aren’t democracy and place big enough?

Here is another thing I think we stand for: the building of a good community. And what do I mean by “good community?” I mean the creation of systems that affect many people: good schools, a strong economy, decent social conditions, conversation across cultures.

For centuries the arts have done this as they draw attention to inequity, to social foolishness, to issues that affect people’s lives. From this century we know, perhaps, the names of Luis Valdez and the Teatro Campesino, Augusto Boal and the Theater of the Oppressed; we’ve sung songs from Les Miserables, and more, and more, and more. I can’t begin to list and name of the thousands of artists who have challenged society to address its systemic issues. One person who stands out for me is W.E. B. DuBois; at the turn of the last century, he had a lot to say about racism, about the importance of cultural grounding and the importance of cultural exchange. In about 1900, DuBois said:

Begin with art, because art tries to take us outside ourselves. It is a matter of trying to create an atmosphere and context so conversation can flow back and forth and we can be influenced by each other.

W.E.B. DuBois
Korza, Pam, Barbara Schaffer Bacon & Andrea Assaf, Civic Dialogue,
Arts and Culture
, Washington, D.C., Americans for the Arts, p. 3

He wrote this about 1900, when a big social reform movement was rolling in our major urban areas. In Boston, for instance, in the early 20th century, an introspective process was underway. Committees studied conditions of public health, religion, business, labor, immigration, parks, education, prisons, and more. Our friend Percy MacKaye then interacted with the committees and took their findings, synthesizing them into a huge pageant performed in 1910 – not the too-often-spectacular but rather trivial show that this word often conveys today – no, a show in which the city itself would be the protagonist. Indeed, the choreographers, musicians and playwrights who worked with him believed that they were on the cutting edge of contemporary art, for they were creating a whole new art form, synthesizing community process and place with the techniques of the arts. The performers came from many walks of life, and this was part of MacKaye’s big idea – that diverse people should come to know one another in the process of working side by side in the show. Literally hundreds of people from the city – tenement dwellers and high rollers, people whose native language was English and those whose it wasn’t, workers and management, participated. “Sons of Veterans …stood side by side with workers from the Central Labor Union…. The elite students from the Latin Girls School…danced with Russian immigrants from the Elizabeth Peabody Home…. Indeed middle class young people …performed as Dust Clouds and Disease Germs alongside immigrants from Hale House who depicted Flames…” [Prevots, Naima, American Pageantry: A Movement for Art and Democracy, Ann Arbor, UMI Research Press, 1990, p. 30]

In St. Louis, a similar pageant was coupled with a national Conference of Cities; the largest city in each state was invited to send an envoy who represented “the best things in the progress and development of [that] city.” Moreover, “the representative should also be able to take part in the drama himself, to appear to advantage on horseback.” [Prevots, p. 20-21] Frederick Law Olmstead and Jane Addams participated (and I can’t help but think about Jane, “appearing to advantage on horseback!”) The conference afterward, whose theme was the democratization of art in city life, addressed such topics as “Folk Dancing in America” to “People’s Orchestra” to “Municipal Recreation: A School of Democracy” to “Humanizing City Government.”

What was happening in rural areas? In 1914, Congress created the Extension Service when it passed the Smith-Lever Act, to address quality of life and economic issues in rural communities. The arts were at the table. In a history of the arts in the Extension Service, we see chapter titles like “Informal Drama in Community Planning in Ohio and New York,” “Corn, Hogs and Opera in Iowa,” “An Experiment in Regional Planning at Oglebay Park, Wheeling, West Virginia.” [Patten, The Arts Workshop of Rural America] It seems that extension agents might have been circuit-riding arts developers. Certainly, they embraced the arts as a vehicle to improve community life – both as an ends and as a means.

Baker Brownell was a former newspaper reporter, ultimately a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University. He was interested in community development, and may have been the first to use that term. After World War II, he was invited to Montana to work with several small towns which were struggling with their economic future after the copper bust following World War II. He developed a “community self-study process,” in which committees on education, religion, economy, and more, were formed. Each committee studied the history of that topic area in the town. Brownell then brought a Montana playwright to work with the committees if they wished, who worked with them to synthesize their findings into a performance about the future of the town – sort of a rural version of what they had done in Boston 35 years before. In Darby, for instance (whose timber-based economy included clear-cutting by the company that in effect controlled the town) the people began to question the wisdom of clear-cutting as they proceeded in their self-study process, and their play, “Darby Looks At Itself,” was a sort of medieval morality play in which the devil represented “outmoded thinking.” Complete with claps of thunder and a chorus of people chanting “Beat the land, cut the trees, beat it….” the play included most of the people of Darby, it seemed. It ended with the devil laughing as an old man said:

‘This here’s the last big tree on the last big job. Logging around here is about finished, and so am I who logged it.’ ‘Grand, that’s just grand’ laughed the devil…. ‘I’ve worked these woods for fifty years…but guess I’ll have to…get out. Sure hate it, but guess I’ll have to,’ the old-timer replied. ‘Wonderful! Wonderful!’ Still the devil wasn’t satisfied. Now he wanted his destructive methods extended to the national forest. But that was going too far. Denny Gray, playing the role of the old-timer, was leading the opposition. ‘Our logging jobs are shot,’ shouted the old lumberjack, ‘because 50 years ago, 25 years ago, 10 years ago, we listened to men like this devil here instead of men of vision who saw then a simple truth that is so pathetically clear now – that you can’t cut all the timber from our Bitter Root forests and still have forests.’ A wave of restlessness went through the mob of woodsmen. They moved forward against the devil and hurled him from the stage.

Poston, Richard, Small Town Renaissance, first published in 1950; republished Westport, Greenwood Press, 1971, p. 55-56.

In a similar vein, Robert Gard told this story about his own experience using theater in community-building:

One night in 1950 I was invited to a farmers’ meeting that had a double purpose. The first purpose was the discussion of an economic measure near to the community’s heart, and the second purpose was to discuss what that community might do through theater to draw the community into a more cohesive body. My part was distinctly secondary on the program.

The economic question was this: Our Wisconsin Legislature recently put through a law requiring that farmers have a separate milkhouse with a concrete floor and that they haul the manure away from the barns every day. There was a date set at which time all the milkhouses must be ready. Many farmers disliked the law. They were shorthanded. They had no time to build a new milkhouse. Some of them had always let the manure pile up around the barn throughout the winter and by Gad, they would continue to do so!

This particular meeting turned into a hot one. The chair got into trouble trying to keep order, and the county agricultural agent was almost mobbed because some of the folks blamed him for their plight. This community had also summoned its state assemblyman to be present; he had voted for the milkhouse bill in the legislature. They said violent things to him. The discussion was not getting anywhere. They wrangled for a while and then decided to call it off. They turned the meeting over to me.

Maryo Gard Ewell with Mason Arvold
The next generation: Robert Gard’s daughter Maryo, also a community arts developer, and Alfred Arvold’s son Mason (now deceased), who became a lighting designer. Photo by George Sibley.

I was in an uncomfortable spot, faced by anticlimax and the probable futility of trying to stimulate interesting discussion in this particular atmosphere. I knew I simply could not talk about drama in ordinary terms. It suddenly occurred to me, as I fumbled about, that the previous discussion had aspects of a drama: conflict, character, excellent dialogue. So I set about fabricating, without the people actually knowing what was going on, a comic situation in which the various factions and individuals were either for or against the milkhouse law, and before we realized it a kind of group play was actually in progress, only now it seemed in terms of comedy, exciting but laughable, for I had attempted to exaggerate the purpose on both sides and to enlarge on the innocence of the county agent and to exaggerate the well-meaning, slightly self-pitying attitude of the legislator as well as the anger of several of the more outspoken opponents of the milkhouse bill.

In the informally dramatized version of the affair that we made up there at the moment the farmer was getting his whacks at the legislator and the county agent was making his excuses, but within the framework of a creative situation.

Somehow feelings seemed cleansed, purposes made clear, and actually everyone began to enjoy the situation. In fact, they enjoyed it so much that they decided to put the dramatized discussion on again at a later gathering. And they did, with a big spread of good country grub, with some rural paintings hung around the walls of the hall, and with some singers from a county-wide rural chorus furnishing another aspect of the occasion.

Gard, Robert, Grassroots Theater, p. 130-131

Look at the crowd of visionaries walking with us. Now we have Luis Valdez, W.E.B. DuBois, Baker Brownell, and a host of community organizers joining us.

A healthy community for all. Now that’s a big idea.

 

Conclusion

Well, when we go home on Tuesday, and our messy desks and 250 e mails await us, and we wonder why in the heck we do this work, I urge you to remember who is walking with you, keeping you safe, goosing you a little, telling you bad jokes when you need it, handing you a cocktail or a cup of coffee, putting their hand on your shoulder and telling you to keep the faith: it’s Rachel Davis-Dubois, W.E.B. DuBois, the people of Athens, the people of the Dakotas, Robert Gard, Alfred Arvold, Frederick Koch, Charles Van Hise, Glenn Frank, Percy MacKaye, Augusto Boal, and so many more.

You are carrying the torch they’ve given you. Carry it high and well, for you must pass it to others. The work of those who come after you will look as different from your work, as your work looks different from Alfred Arvold’s. But these big ideas – democracy, place and its peoples, community building – are timeless.

And by articulating our groundedness in them, we can stay on the ethical path.

Democracy? Percy MacKaye asks us questions like “Which of those choices you’re facing better furthers the concept of liberty and justice for all?” and Rachel Davis-Dubois asks you, “Which of these choices better furthers cultural democracy?”

Place? We can hear Frederick Koch asking “Which of these choices better reflects the uniqueness of Your town?”

Community? We can hear W.E.B. DuBois asking, “Does one of these options build a healthier community conversation than the other does?”

And we have to look them in the eye and answer them. How you answer them will be translated into your work.

I want to close with words from Robert Gard. At the close of The Arts in the Small Community, he wrote this prose-poem and it beautifully expresses what I’ve been struggling to talk about. After I read it, Liz, Clive, Amy, Paul and I will sing it to you, and then we invite the Change Leaders Singing Society – all of you – to rise and sing it with us:

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.

Gard, Robert E., Michael Warlum, Ralph Kohlhoff, et al, The Arts in the Small Community: A National Plan, Madison,University of Wisconsin Extension Division Printing, 1969, p, 98 [This book has been updated by Maryo Gard Ewell and Michael Warlum and printed by Americans for the Arts in 2006.

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

Now, stay on your feet, and repeat after me:

We will never bring disgrace to this our city…. We will fight for the ideal and sacred things of the city, both alone and with many; we will strive unceasingly to quicken the public’s sense of duty. Thus, in all these ways we will transmit this city, not only, not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.

_____________

Maryo Gard Ewell’s website

_____________

Be Sociable, Share!

Powered By : My Wordpress Grage