In the history of the community arts movement in America, July 3 stands as a notable day. On this day, we celebrate the birthday of one giant, Robert Gard, born in 1910 and the passing of another, Ralph Burgard, in 2008. Gard and Burgard each created processes and pathways to creative engagement for individuals and communities. Each advanced the idea and value of community arts development through direct community work and the creation of infrastructure to promote community arts development and grow a movement. Each worked tirelessly to advance the right to creative expression for residents in every Americans city, town, and hamlet in America. This makes the juxtaposition to the 4th of July, a day when we celebrate our freedoms, just – sweet!
Robert Gard established the Wisconsin Idea Theatre Conference in 1945 and in 1948 he established the Wisconsin Regional Writers Association. Both organizations became key institutions, furthering the native literature and lore of Wisconsin. In 1966, the National Council on the Arts awarded its first grant for development of the arts in small communities to Gard and the Office of Community Arts Development he established at University Extension, University of Wisconsin, Madison. The project dealt specifically with ways of developing greater interest and participation in the arts in communities of 10,000 or less. The Arts in Small Communities was recently republished and is still providing lessons in arts development. For more information on Robert Gard, visit The Robert E. Gard Wisconsin Idea Foundation.
Ralph Burgard, born in 1927, found his true calling in 1955, when he was appointed director of the Arts Council in Winston-Salem, NC, on of the first community arts council in the United States. While serving as director of the Saint Paul Council of Arts and Sciences from 1957–1965, he founded the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. He was a founding member of the Community Arts Councils in 1960, and served as the first director of the Arts Councils of America (now known as Americans for the Arts) in New York City from 1965–1970, earning the informal title, “father of community arts councils.” In his book, ‘Arts in the City” (1968), Mr. Burgard argued that decentralized, community-based arts organizations that were rooted in local history and traditions could play a transformative role, not only in towns, but also in larger urban centers. He established Burgard Associates, the nation’s first cultural planning firm, which developed initiatives to revitalize urban communities spanning from Charlotte, NC to Santa Cruz, CA. Throughout his career, Mr. Burgard advocated for the centrality of culture in daily life, writing, “I’ve always believed that the arts are the antennae of the human race.” Mr. Burgard wrote. Mr. Burgard started the A+ Schools Program in 1988. Its comprehensive arts curriculum is now offered to 18,000 students in 42 public schools in North Carolina.
The community arts movement has many roots and many heroes but these are two important pioneers. If you don’t know about these two great men, they have left behind lasting organizations, great writing and many practitioners like me whose daily work is informed and inspired by them. Start Googling!