As part of my daily practice of preparing to fight the good fight, I do a number of things: rise early, exercise, eat a spectacular breakfast, and write (even for just 5 minutes) in my journal. Over the past few weeks, I have added reading a short section of To Change the Face and Heart of America for inspiration. One passage in particular has stuck with me as it resonates with the work of my organization, the UMass Amherst Arts Extension Service:

“If there is anything in my message to you, it is this: No matter where you work, how large or small your setting, the key to your beginning something that lasts in human lives is courage, vision. Compromise may be necessary but vision can transcend all. … I think it is up [to you] to set the tone of a New America dedicated to its grassroots.”

While Robert Gard’s writings are relevant to anyone working in arts field, they are particularly relevant to the UMass Amherst Arts Extension Service, who can trace their lineage directly to Robert Gard’s manifestation of the Wisconsin Idea. The Wisconsin Idea came into being during early 20th century populism—it was the idea that state universities should advance the welfare of the people of their state. This idea became the philosophic underpinning of Gard’s work in Wisconsin and beyond. The UMass Amherst Arts Extension Service (AES), founded in 1973 by MA State Senate President Stan Rosenberg, and later helmed by Americans for the Arts’ own Bob Lynch, was inspired by the work of Gard and has faithfully served the needs of the field for almost 45 years. AES was instrumental in the founding of Local Cultural Council system in Massachusetts and, while our work has evolved over the years, the core of our mission has always been to share the resources of the University in order to advance our surrounding community and region.

As many of you are aware, the Wisconsin Idea at public universities is under attack in many states—one of them sadly being Wisconsin. In 2015, Governor Scott Walker submitted a budget proposal that included a change to the University of Wisconsin system mission statement (which IS the Wisconsin Idea), removing words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.” [1]

Allocations by states to their universities are either reflecting this ideology or simply the tough choices created by fiscal reality. Lacking the affluent alumni and profit-generating research, arts and humanities departments in particular are in peril. This flies in the face of Gard’s own legacy in Wisconsin. There is a forgetting, as Gard points out, that the arts “enable the individual to explore the creative potential of his intellectual and emotional self, and … can result in new understanding of the human environment.”

It is an understatement to say that in our current time, maintaining the right balance of Gard’s prescribed courage, vision, dedication, and capacity for compromise is challenging. While we are all constantly refining our own self-maintenance regimes, for me a lumberjack breakfast, a Zumba class, and a daily dose of Gard help keep me on track:

“Let us believe in each other, remembering that each has tasted bitter with sweet, sorrow with gladness, toil with rest. Let us believe in ourselves and our talents.”

At AES, our vision has always remained the same: to share the resources of the University with the surrounding community and region. How we do this has changed given present challenges and opportunities. While resources used to be defined as money and staff time, it now means a much more awesome resource: empowered students. With the twin challenges of developing engaged human beings and creating workers with hopeful job prospects, we are attempting to serve two, sometimes contradictory, masters. We are teaching at the grassroots level the role the arts, as Gard points out, have in addressing the “deprivation of creativity” underlying recalcitrant social problems. We teach arts entrepreneurship with a focus on human-centered design thinking and art’s capacity to create social change, and arts management with an emphasis on cultural equity, cultural advocacy and the “green movement,” so we can build leaders that “change the face and heart of America.” Whether online or on-campus, all of our students work with case study organizations, applying concepts learned in class to the creation of concrete resources for their communities around the country. Listening to field needs led us to create the online Leadership Certificate in Arts Management, providing more experienced arts leaders with tools to address critical issues of cultural equity, arts policy and advocacy, and the environment.

Every day, we need to take a moment to remind—and strengthen—ourselves for the visions we are striving for. We need to remind ourselves that “we are contributing to the maturity of a great nation.” Whatever regime works best for you, Gard’s writings in To Change the Face and Heart of America will make a welcome addition.