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.

Note to Researchers

The interviews are easily accessible by simply clicking on any name listed below.  You will find two categories for each entry: the first, Interview begins the oral presentation; the second Interview – Index provides a written outline, summary or additional background information.

Quite early in the process, listeners will want to watch the Maryo Gard Ewell lecture delivered as part of a UW-Madison Seminar/Lecture Series on The Wisconsin Idea, October 10, 2017: An excellent overview of the role the arts played in the shaping and delivery of the Wisconsin Idea to the people of the state can be found in Ms. Gard Ewell’s lecture, “No Mute Inglorious Milton.” It introduces some of the great individuals of the early 20th century who provide foundation and historical context for the interviews in this oral history series. Researchers not familiar with this background are urged to start with this lecture.

Because each of these narrators played so many roles as educators, activists, artists and administrators, and because the “arts extension” programs went by so many names over the decades, we identify individuals and their affiliation in the most general of terms.

A suggestion for organizing listening to the series, but not necessarily in the order presented:  1.) Robert Gard himself; 2.) Close personal friends, Allison and Lefebvre; 3.) Earlier years, Harbaugh and Thurrell; 4.) NEA Arts in the Small Community national grant program, Gard, Ewell and Warlum; 5.) Wisconsin Idea Theatre, Gard, Peterson and Warlum; 6.) Personal family and national arts leadership, Ewell; 7.) Art – 4-H Youth, Echtner, Nelson and Thurrell; 8.) Dance – Cowan;  9.) Music – 4-H Youth, Harbaugh, Rabin, Wolf and Zellner; 10.) Theatre and Drama – 4-H Youth, Gard, Peterson and Thompson; 11.) Writing – Allison, Apps, Cook, Gard, Lefebvre and Lewis; 12.) Departmental administration – Gard, Thompson, Warlum and Wolf.

Robert E. Gard Foundation – Oral History Project Interviews

  • Allison, Bruce (Interview # 1428) arborist  Robert E. Gard’s publisher; close personal and life-time friend of the professor
  • Apps, Jerry (Interview # 1343) writing prolific writer encouraged and inspired by Robert Gard; dedicated teacher; professor of continuing education
  • Bennett, Marjorie Harbaugh (Interview # 1427) music  folk musician; a Wisconsin Idea Theater graduate student during its very early years
  • Cook, Marshall (Interview # 1418) writing author; writing teacher; Rhinelander School of the Arts teacher and advisor; professor of writing
  • Cowan, Karen (Interview # 1396) dance  dancer-choreographer; dance educator; arts administrator; Rhinelander School of the Arts advisor; professor of dance
  • Echtner, Thomas (Interview # 1416) art  artist; early art entrepreneur empowering artists to market and sell their work in commercial venues; professor of art
  • 4H Youth Professionals (Interview # 1566) panel (Interview #1566) multi-arts professionals knowledgeable about the role of the arts in Wisconsin’s statewide 4-H arts, photography and communication programs
  • Gard Ewell, Maryo (Interview # 1417) multi-arts  writer and lecturer; teacher of arts administration; professional community arts administrator; Robert E. Gard’s daughter
  • Gard, Robert E. (Interview # 0251) theatre and writing Director of the Wisconsin Idea Theater; writer and dramatist; director of community arts development; chair of extension arts program; professor of theatre
  • Lefebvre, Mark (Interview # 1415) development director  undergraduate through graduate student assistant for Professor Gard who then became his editor, publisher and lifelong close personal friend
  • Lewis, Genevieve (Interview # 1429) writing  manager of “We Were Children Then” senior writing project; assistant to the director of the Rhinelander School of the Arts
  • Nelson, Leslee (Interview # 1419) art  artist; faculty director of Wisconsin Regional Artists Program; professor of art
  • Peterson, David (Interview # 1567) theatre and music  musician; playwright; producer and director of Wisconsin Idea Theatre and later the Heritage Ensemble; this interview developed posthumously: four of David’s long-time actors read from both his autobiographical notes and  his memorial tribute written and produced by Amy Chaffee
  • Rabin, Marvin (Interview # 889)* music  conductor; founder of Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras; music educator; international guest clinician; professor of music
  • Thompson, Harv (Interview # 1014) theatre statewide director of continuing education in theatre programs; director of international educational travel programs; chair of extension arts program; director Rhinelander School of the Arts; professor of theatre
  • Thurrell, Mary (Interview # 1742) art  artist; Let’s Draw historian; staff assistant to art professors Watrous and Schwalbach; long-time member of Wisconsin Regional Artists Program
  • Warlum, Michael (Interview # 1388) multi-arts  director of The Arts in the Small Community program; first University of Wisconsin doctoral student researching community arts development; Warlum also discussed his life in Wisconsin for Oral History Program’s LGBTQ oral history project
  • Wolf, Richard (Interview # 1397) music  arts and music administrator; music educator; co-developer of Wisconsin Youth Symphony; chair of extension arts program
  • Zellner, Richard (Interview # 1460) music  graduate student; clinician; administrator; musician

*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.

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!