Robert E. Gard Foundation Oral History Project

Robert Gard at WHA, Image #S10381.

Robert Gard at WHA, Image #S10381.

The Arts in the Small Community was a seminal project of the University of Wisconsin’s Office of Community Arts Development in 1966. Robert E. Gard was the visionary who led this project.

Gard joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin in 1945 and established the Wisconsin Idea Theatre that year. In Wisconsin, his chief areas of activity were in the theater arts and in creative writing, with a strong side activity in collecting and publishing the folklore of the state.

In 1967 he established the functional area of Arts Development under University Extension and remained a specialist in the arts in smaller communities and rural areas.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Arts in the Small Community, the Gard Foundation, working with the Wisconsin Arts Board, UW-Madison Oral History Program (OHP) and UW-Madison Division of Continuing Studies, collected memories of the activities and impact of artists, educators, and administrators whose reach extended from the University to the people of Wisconsin, inspiring them to write, paint, dance, make music, perform or administer arts.

Professor Emeritus Harv Thompson retired from the University of Wisconsin-Madison/Extension in 2004. Beginning in 1970, he served as director of continuing education in theatre providing citizens throughout the state with learning opportunities to improve theatre education at all levels. Harv’s leadership ensured that this oral history project came to fruition so that Wisconsin would always remember its proud history as a leader of all the arts for all the people.

Wisconsin’s rural arts development history is a rich one, easily traced back to the articulation of the Wisconsin Idea in the early 1900’s, through the UW College of Agriculture’s decision to hire the nation’s first artist-in-residence in 1936, through seminal WHA programming such as “Let’s Draw” with James Schwalbach, through Robert Gard’s tenure at the University and culminating in the rich network of artists who worked through University Extension in many capacities from many campuses in the 1970s.

New directions at the University meant that these professors and academic staff were not replaced when they retired, and today, very few people are aware of this extraordinary history.

The Gard Foundation aims to collect as many stories as possible either from the faculty artists still living, or from those who knew them well.

These interviews are publicly accessible online through MINDS@UW, the UW’s digital repository, as well as housed at the UW-Madison Archives (home of the OHP). For more information about this particular project or the UW-Madison Oral History Program, contact Oral History Program head Troy Reeves. On, Wisconsin!

Robert E. Gard Foundation – Oral History Project Interviews

*The audio for the Rabin interview is barely audible; because of that fact as of December 2016, there is no summary document for it. For more information about how to access that interview, contact the Oral History Program.

Note to Researchers

The interviews in this collection detail the history of UW-Extension Arts through the perspective of its educators from roughly 1945 to 2016. We suggest the following interviews for research into particular subject areas.

For background on Robert Gard, the Arts in the Small Community project, and the Wisconsin Idea: Robert Gard (#0251), Maryo Gard Ewell (#1417), Harv Thompson (#1014)

For more on the early years of Extension Arts: Michael Warlum (#1417)

For reflections on particular arts programs: