The Arts in Smaller Communities (And their Encouragement) by Robert Gard

“Gard in Field” University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives, Used With Permission

By Savannah Barrett

Maryo Gard Ewell and the Robert E. Gard Wisconsin Idea Foundation recently shared with Art of the Rural this never-before digitally published manuscript from Robert Gard’s keynote address at the National Association of Local Arts Agencies Conference (now Americans for the Arts) in Philadelphia in 1982. The talk is entitled “The Arts in Smaller Communities (And their Encouragement)”.

You may download it here: Gard manuscript.

Gard sketch

“Gard Sketch”, University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives, Used With Permission

We are thrilled to share this important content with you, especially in celebration of the centennial of the Smith-Lever Act establishing the Cooperative Extension Service. Robert Gard developed the Wisconsin Idea Theatre in the 1940s and a part of the Cooperative Extension Service in Wisconsin, which engaged thousands of Wisconsinites in telling the stories of their place. In 1966, the Community Arts Development office of the Wisconsin Extension Service was awarded the nation’s first National Endowment for the Arts grant for the arts in small communities and by 1973, 23 arts extension agents were working throughout that state. His landmark publication The Arts in the Small Community: A National Plan is a seminal work in the community arts canon, and will celebrate its golden anniversary in 2016.

Gard references the early years of the Cooperative Extension Service as a mechanism to “improve homes and encourage creative spirits as well as improve farm-home situations economically.” He references Glen Frank (former president of the University of Wisconsin): “Agriculture is a way of life as well as a livelihood. There is poetry as well as production on a farm. Art can help us to preserve the poetry while we are battling with the economics of farming.”


Robert Gard’s seminal book regarding small community arts, published in 1966

This 1982 talk speaks to a range of issues for the contemporary community arts developer:

He underlines the importance of vision: “No matter where you work, how large or small a setting; the key to your beginning something what may last in human lives is courage, vision. Compromise may be necessary, but vision can transcend all.”

He encourages us to know ourselves: “the ability to know yourself, to know the limits of your strength and ability and what your chief interests are, are considerations about which it is impossible to say too much.

Then, he also emphasizes the importance of the cultural developer working in their community as a whole person: “Rural people may not make the same distinctions in roles that urbanites may. Thus, the rural arts developer… will need to create a multiplicity of roles for himself in the community to gain acceptance… to strengthen his image as a citizen, not just an arts developer.”

The following excerpt from this talk includes his final remarks at the convention, and calls to arms both emerging and continuing leadership for rural arts and culture:

“I would hope that you delegates here might take this as a charge from me—a sort of handing on of a role which I have greatly enjoyed. I believe we must face the future with courage and vision. The rural folk in America and those who are developing the arts in rural places, need not only to know that they have made a difference; but that the ball has very nearly been passed back into their hands. Note the changing demographics focusing attention on environmental issues, on transportation, on issues of growing populations and absentee or vacation ownership of land; of the issue of older people. I think it is up to you to set the tone of a new America, devoted again to its grassroots. And to the new leaders and partners who appear to be returning to the land.”


Dedication plaque at the Gard Storyteller Circle site on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison
Photo credit Maryo Gard Ewell

Art of the Rural has partnered with Imagining America to celebrate the centennial of the Smith-Lever Act through the Extension Reconsidered Initiative. Please visit the Imagining America website for more information on the Initiative, and our Extension Reconsidered page for more information on Art of the Rural publications relevant to the Cooperative Extension Service. For more information on Robert Gard and his publications, please visit the Robert E. Gard Wisconsin Idea Foundation website at