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ON THE ARTS: The Wisconsin idea

October 14, 2010
The Wisconsin Idea stands for the then revolutionary principle, first articulated by former University of Wisconsin president Charles Van Hise in a 1904 speech, that beneficent influence of a university should touch the lives of every person in the state. Van Hise put this idea into form through creating the university’s extension division, which brought university courses and programs to all corners of the state, an activity greatly facilitated by his former classmate and then current Wisconsin Governor “Fighting Bob” La Follette, known for advancing progressive reforms through government.

This past weekend I was brought to Madison, Wi. as responder and presenter at a conference dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Robert E. Gard, who founded the Wisconsin Idea Theatre, which had as its mission bringing the theatre arts to every community in the state, and three years later, the Wisconsin Regional Writer’s Association, which had a similar mission. These efforts led to his founding the Wisconsin Arts Foundation and Council, the first state arts council in the country.

In the beginning, the University was the lead agency for expanding the arts, not just in theatre and literature but also in the visual and performing arts and through documenting and preserving folk traditions. Gard and others took their programs and classes on the road and through the airways helping to establish the first public radio station in the country.

The influence of the Wisconsin Idea can be seen in the myriad ways in which the arts and humanities are popping up throughout the Adirondacks. Although now in a much more organic approach than was initially practiced in Wisconsin, the impact has been no less profound. Consider for a moment the rustic furniture industry and dramatic growth in homes that incorporate rustic design, an industry that has at its roots a decision by the Adirondack Museum at Blue Mountain Lake to revitalize the making of rustic furniture through hosting workshops with the living masters of the craft and establishing an annual rustic furniture fair – the premier event of its kind in the nation.

The conference I attended was sponsored by The Wisconsin Idea Foundation, which is based on the following three beliefs:

¯The arts spring from the commonplace and celebrate our essential humanity,

¯The arts, when nurtured and expressed, can change people and their communities for the better, and

¯That in community development through the arts, each of us has the capacity to “alter the face and the heart of America.”

In my mind, the Recovery Lounge in Upper Jay illustrates their first belief. The Lounge’s artistic director Scott Renderer draws out of the hidden talents of ordinary people from all walks of life amazing performances — mesmerizing performances by people with little or no previous experience as an actor.

Consider the impact of the Pendragon Theatre, Adirondack Artist Guild, Bluseed Studio, the gallery walks, and the number of self-sustaining artists on the economy and spirit of Saranac Lake. They illustrate the second belief that the arts can enhance community life for the better just as the Lake Placid Center for the Arts, the Sinfonietta, Lake Placid Institute and the Film Forum have done for Lake Placid. Imagine life in these villages without these artistic resources.

Going back to my earlier example to illustrate their third belief, the growth of Adirondack rustic design has had a profound impact on the face and heart of the Adirondacks, as had such other seminal artistic achievements such as photographer Nathan Farb’s books, and the decision to create the first winter arts Olympiad as part of the 1980 Olympics, an event that has become a featured part of every Winter Games since.

The question before us in Madison, was what next — what can the arts do to help foster a healthy community? We were asked to examine how the arts can be used to foster a healthy government, a healthy economy, a healthy environment, a healthy spiritual life, and a healthy physical, emotional and social life. Is this far fetched? In Saranac Lake representatives of the arts have been involved from the beginning with a coalition of agencies that includes the Trudeau Institute, the Adirondack Medical Center, Paul Smith’s College, North Country Community College, St. Joseph’s Treatment Center and the Adirondack Economic Development Agency to create Patriot Hills at Saranac Lake, a center for the reintegration of military personnel, their families and caregivers.

Equally telling is that at the 55th annual meeting of the Adirondack North Country Association, held the very same weekend, participants discussed the importance of the economic engine of the arts, culture and history. Michelle SanAntonio, director of the North Creek Depot Museum, said that she learned how the arts can help organizations and communities re-brand and adapt to changing economic times. As ANCA director Kate Fish said in an interview with NCPR’s Todd Moe, “(the arts, culture and history) are absolutely key components of viable economic communities and they contribute enormously to the regional economy in ways that I don’t think people really understand. It is something that is often viewed as a little bit of sidebar, as an extravagance perhaps, yet (they are) a central part of our rural economy.”

This year the Minnesota Children’s Hospital is spending $10 million on the arts to make their new facility more attractive, to increase their marketing advantage and to help them achieve their goal as being recognized as one of the top ten hospitals in the United States. One wonders what even a modest investment could do to help enrich the Adirondack Brand. Plein Air anyone?



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