Robert Gard: Poet, Prophet, and Pioneer

Janet Brown

In 1980, when I was living in New York City, I had a conversation with a man who at one time was general manager of Lincoln Center. We debated, rather heatedly, his premise that the National Endowment for the Arts should give money only to states that produce “good” art — in other words, New York. (He wasn’t sure other states should get any funding at all.) He believed the federal government should give funds to South Dakota, my home state, for what it does well — grow corn and beef. He believed the government should fund only what someone would decide was “good” art, and obviously, no “good” art came out of South Dakota.

I was offended by that, and I can pinpoint that day as the beginning of my somewhat outspoken beliefs that all art has an element of excellence as long as it is authentic to a people and place. I delight in the fact that there are no rules of geography and environment in art making. These were also the beliefs of Robert Gard, who became one of my heroes when I moved back to the Midwest and began a career as an arts advocate and technical assistance provider.

I was first introduced to Gard through the work of his daughter, Maryo Ewell, the longtime community arts development staffer for the Colorado Arts Council. Her thoughts, writings, and instincts are inspirational and self-assuring to me. Her belief in people and their power to build community through the arts shook me awake about twenty-five years ago. It was my people she was talking about, my sense of place, my community.

I was asked to write a paper in 1990 for Grassroots and Mountain Wings, a national symposium and publication. It brought many of my heroes in the community development field together: Maryo, David O’Fallon, Chris Van Antwerp, Bob Lynch, Bill Pratt, Daniel Withrow, Joan Lolmaugh, Tina Burdett, and Nola Ruth. But most importantly, the symposium and the subsequent publication by the same name were dedicated to Gard, the poet, prophet, and pioneer.

I met Gard at that symposium. I listened to his remarks, and he listened to mine. They were, indeed, incredibly similar in content and philosophy. I was grateful to have met him and to have been inspired by his writings and his accomplishments. He was truly a pioneer in community arts development, employed by the University of Wisconsin agricultural extension service and essentially doing the work of an arts community organizer in rural towns throughout the region.

I don’t think that community arts development is the same as the term that is so popular today, creative placemaking. It is more like the term first coined by Roberto Bedoya, creative placekeeping. I love the latter phrase because it indicates that all places are creative by nature, because all people are creative and artistic by nature.

Gard’s work in the Midwest, making theater out of true stories of farmers and small townsfolk, was in direct conflict at the time with the intent of the newly established National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The NEA was focused on building professionalism in the arts in America, while the community arts development movement celebrated the arts and artists of every community in and outside the professional definitions. Gard was aware that institutions could become centers of arts worship primarily for the wealthy and primarily for white people. The emphasis on “excellence” and the academic standards that define it have created challenges that the nonprofit arts sector struggles with today.

People will continue to make art in the places where they live, whether it is on a street corner in the Bronx, New York, or a community theater in Butte, Montana — and whether they get paid to do it or not. We, as arts professionals, can only define their art in a way that somehow lessens or heightens what they do. Robert Gard chose the high road on that one. We can all only hope to follow his example.

2016 is the fiftieth anniversary of Robert Gard’s The Arts in the Small Community.