Community Arts: A Little Historical Context

Maryo Gard Ewell

Maryo Gard Ewell worked for more than thirty years in arts administration. Her special field during most of that time was the symbiotic relationship between arts programs and community development. Since her retirement in 2003 from the Colorado Council on the Arts, she has worked as a consultant, conference organizer, and speaker in community and arts development. Ewell literally grew up in the community arts movement. She is the daughter of Robert Gard, who pioneered the NEA-funded Arts in Small Communities project in the 1960s—the NEA's first “access” grant—and authored more than forty books.

Massachusetts-based arts consultant Craig Deezen has described Maryo as “America's community arts tradition keeper. If I say she is the historian of the community arts movement, that is true, but it suggests that she's just looking back. She also is a visionary who has defined community arts development in a way that is continuously contemporary.”

I've noticed that many grantmakers are becoming interested in community arts today—and I'm delighted.

Sometimes time starts for us at the moment when we grow interested in something; but it may be illuminating to take a look at what—and who—has come before us, for looking backward helps focus our thinking about the future.

Before I do that, though, let me clarify what I mean by “community arts,” a phrase that is used in so many different ways. I can't count the number of times I've been talking with someone, only to realize fifteen minutes into the conversation that we each mean something completely different by “community arts,” and we haven't been communicating at all. For the purposes of this essay, we need to clarify what it is not.

“Community arts” does not mean merely “access.” We may cry “Arts for everyone!” But it is helpful to contrast two worldviews in which “Arts for everyone!” has dramatically different meanings. In his portrait of former NEA chair Nancy Hanks, Michael Straight attributes to New Republic cofounder Herbert Croly the sentiment that “democracy was a fine idea; too fine to be left to the people.” Straight goes on to quote the findings of a panel convened by Nelson Rockefeller, which declared that the arts were “'for the many' but could not be entrusted to the many.” 1 Founder of the Wisconsin Idea Theatre, Robert E. Gard, on the other hand, contends that “in terms of American democracy, the arts are for everyone…. As America emerges into a different understanding of her strength, it becomes clear that her strength is in the people and in the places where the people live. The people, if shown the way, can create art in and of themselves.” 2

For me, the set of values Gard describes is the basis of community arts.

There are other ways in which “community arts” is used that do not apply in my exploration of the topic:

  • It isn't solely the work of community arts councils/local arts agencies. Community arts development has been around for a long time; local arts agencies only came into being in the United States in 1949. Many local arts councils undertake community arts work, however.
  • It isn't necessarily the work of nonprofessional artists, though many nonprofessional artists are engaged in community arts work. Nor is it “antiprofessional,” as some have claimed.
  • It isn't code for “culturally specific.” Many culturally specific groups undertake community arts work, but many do not.
  • The term also is not code for “process” (as opposed to “product”). There's a misconception that community arts practitioners find product irrelevant. Not so: “There is a vast and noticeable difference between letting a thousand flowers bloom and permitting everything to come up in weeds.” 3

So what does the term mean? I offer this working definition: “Community art is of and by the people of a place and culture, often facilitated by a professional artist. It reflects the values, concerns, and meaning of living in that place or culture.”

Long ago, I heard Merce Cunningham speak at a conference. An audience member asked him to name his best dance. He said something like this: “Everyone's body moves in a different way. The best pieces I've done have been for a particular dancer, and while many people can dance [a piece] well, only one person can dance it almost perfectly.” There's my analogy. A given piece holds its deepest meaning for, and can best be evaluated by, the people of the community that has made that piece.

With that principle in mind, let's take a brief look at community arts in America's past. Who were some of its outstanding practitioners? Does our work today relate to what they were trying to do?

  • The social reform movement of the early twentieth century often included pageantry. In Boston, around 1910, a study of social ills and needs culminated in a huge production involving thousands of people from all walks of life, trying to help Boston move into the future. “The community is the protagonist” was a slogan of the well-known pageant dramatist Percy MacKaye. His Masque of St. Louis, similarly, was coupled with a weeklong national conversation about the future of cities. The artists working on these pageants believed that by melding the arts with a look at a community's future through reflection on its past, they were on the cutting edge of contemporary art. 4 Indeed, MacKaye believed that every city should support a “civic theater”—an unfettered theater where the realities of a community could be examined: “True democracy is vitally concerned with beauty, and true art is vitally concerned with citizenship.” 5
  • Alfred Arvold was a dramatist at North Dakota State University from 1909 to 1955. He believed that stand-alone arts centers were not good for community life; in 1917 he advocated the creation of community centers: “A community center is a place … where people meet in their own way to analyze whatever interests they have in common and participate in such forms of recreation as are healthful and enjoyable. The fundamental principle back of the community center is the democratization of all art so the common people can appreciate it, science so that they can use it, government so that they can take a part in it, and recreation so they can enjoy it. In other words, its highest aim is to make the common interests the great interests. To give a human expression in every locality to the significant meaning of these terms—'come let's reason and play together'—is in reality the ultimate object of the community center.” 6
  • Thomas Dickinson founded the Wisconsin Dramatic Society in 1910 to develop a body of work by Wisconsinites reflective of the Wisconsin experience. “My chief interest was in the out-working of democracy, of which I considered the theatre the workshop.” 7 In 1912 Zona Gale wrote “The Neighbors” for the society, offering it royalty-free to community groups who would use the proceeds for civic action; she recommended that after the show there be community singing, dancing, and “discussion of the things their community needs.” 8
  • The University of Wisconsin was well known for inspiring artmaking statewide. Professor Edgar Gordon created singing societies in the tiniest towns in the 1910s. President Glenn Frank of the University of Wisconsin said in 1925: “There's a gap somewhere in the soul of the people that troops into the theater but never produces a folk drama.” 9 University Extension and 4-H programs were hotbeds of inspiring playwriting and local play production. The first artist in residence of any university in the United States was in the University of Wisconsin's College of Agriculture when John Steuart Curry was hired in 1936 to inspire farm family members to paint the culture of agriculture. Robert Gard was hired to do the same thing for writing and drama in 1945. By 1973 there were twenty-eight artists in all disciplines working statewide—from urban inner cities to rural hamlets to prisons—to help people develop their talents. 10
  • In 1914 the Smith-Lever Act created the Extension Service to improve the quality of rural life. In 1938, Marjorie Patten's The Arts Workshop of Rural America detailed how extension agents encouraged the arts—indeed, extension agents were like community arts circuit riders. Chapters with titles such as “Corn, Hogs and Opera in Iowa” or “The Arts and Planning in Ohio” are indicative of their work. 11
  • In North Carolina, Frederick Koch advocated the writing of “folk dramas,” believing that people should write the stories of their own lives. Koch stimulated literally thousands of such plays between 1914 and 1945. A student, Loretto Carroll Bailey, tried to do the same thing in the state's African American communities in the 1930s. 12
  • The Junior League, formed to support the settlement house movement, grew interested in local arts. Virginia Lee Comer was the league's senior consultant for community arts from 1939 to the mid-1960s, inventing cultural planning with “The Arts in Your Town” process. In the mid-1940s she said: “[There should be] all aspects of participation in the arts and also opportunities for appreciation of them, and [in the survey we] included agencies whose sole purpose is to provide cultural opportunity, such as museums, and those whose programs may touch cultural fields, such as radio stations and civic clubs. In addition, organizations of large groups of people such as housing projects, unions, churches, etc, have been included since they are channels through which large numbers can be informed of existing facilities and services and may themselves have developed activities.” 13
  • Reflecting on the Works Progress Administration's Federal Theatre Project, its director, Hallie Flanagan, said in 1940, “Creating for our citizens a medium for free expression … and offering the people access to the arts and tools of a civilization which they themselves are helping to make, such a theatre is at once an illustration and a bulwark of the democratic form of government.” Some—not all by any means—of the WPA arts programs were community arts. Flanagan tells of a Los Angeles chief of police who linked the Federal Theatre with his efforts to reduce delinquency. Flanagan asked why cannot academic programs train students to “work in the theatre in relation to therapeutics, education, and community welfare?” 14 The WPA supported culturally specific arts centers. A woman in Harlem said: “We just felt that the Black minority so endowed with talent and creative energy needed an arena for itself…. If we hadn't the means to make ourselves heard, we would never have been able to assume any responsibility of our own toward weaving the fabric of Black history.” 15
  • In the 1930s, Alexander Drummond of Cornell University, whose “high arts” credentials were undisputed, invited anyone in rural upstate New York with a story to tell to come to Cornell for help in conceiving, scripting, and producing it. He did this in response to the Samuel French playlist that included plays “suitable for rural production,” which Drummond found disrespectful, offensive, and not reflective of American real life. 16
  • New York City schoolteacher Rachel Davis-Dubois advocated using folk arts as a way of helping create intercultural understanding. In 1943 she wrote, “Political democracy—the right of all to vote—we have inherited…. Economic democracy—the right of all to be free from want—we are beginning to envisage…. But cultural democracy—a sharing of values among numbers of our various cultural groups—we have scarcely dreamed of. Much less have we devised social techniques for creating it.” 17
  • Baker Brownell, who may have coined the term “community development,” saw the arts, especially local playwriting, as integral to community planning in his work with towns in economic crisis in Montana in the 1940s. 18
  • Robert Gard's The Arts in the Small Community in 1969 advocated the creation of a local arts movement in which community arts could be meshed with business, natural resource conservation, economic development, intercultural understanding, health, religion, and other aspects of civic life.
  • Luis Valdez (Teatro Campesino in California), Vantile Whitfield (Watts/Los Angeles), John O'Neal (Free Southern Theater in New Orleans), and many, many more linked community artmaking to the struggle for cultural justice in the 1960s. Is art made in the service of social justice community art? Some say yes, others do not; but in my definition, if it's made by the people, and reflects the values, concerns, and meaning of living in a place or culture then indeed it is.

More and more, I find myself looking backward in order to look to the future. Of course things change with the eras, and the activity of today's community arts practitioners may not look much like the activities of Baker Brownell or Frederick Koch. But I'd like to invite us to ask ourselves, what are the big ideas, the through lines, that link us all together through time?

There's a good discussion for the next Grantmakers in the Arts conference, perhaps.


  1. Michael Straight, Nancy Hanks, an Intimate Portrait: The Creation of a National Commitment to the Arts (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1988), 80–81.
  2. Robert E. Gard, The Arts in the Small Community,, 4.
  3. Ibid., 96.
  4. Naima Prevots, American Pageantry (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1990).
  5. Percy MacKaye, The Playhouse and the Play (New York: Macmillan, 1909), 190.
  6. Alfred Arvold, “The Community Center Movement,” in College and State, the North Dakota Agricultural College Alumni Association magazine, 1, no. 3 (May–June 1917), 44.
  7. Quoted in Robert E. Gard, Grassroots Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in America (1955; repr., Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999), 86.
  8. Quoted in ibid., 16.
  9. Quoted in ibid., 9.
  10. Ayse Somersian, Distinguished Service: University of Wisconsin Faculty and Staff Helping to Build Organizations in the State (Friendship, WI: New Past Press, 1997).
  11. Marjorie Patten, The Arts Workshop of Rural America: A Study in the Rural Arts Program of the Agricultural Extension Services (New York: Columbia University Press, 1937).
  12. University of North Carolina Archives, collection number 04124, “Frederick Koch.”
  13. Dorothy Graham-Wheeler, “Forty Years in the Cultural Lane,” MA thesis, Salem College, Winston-Salem, NC, 1989.
  14. Hallie Flanagan, Arena: The Story of the Federal Theatre (1932; repr., New York: Limelight Editions, 1985), 277.
  15. Hope Finkelstein, “Augusta Savage,” MA thesis, City University of New York, 1990.
  16. Cornell University Archives, Collection number 14-24-435, “A. M. Drummond”; Rockefeller Foundation Archives: RG 1.1, 200R, Box 226, 228 (Drummond); R series 236R Box 7, 8. For more on ways in which the Rockefeller Foundation liked to work—and did work—with Drummond, Koch, and Gard, see David H. Stevens, as told to Robert E. Gard, A Time of Humanities: An Oral History. Recollections of David H. Stevens as Director in the Division of the Humanities, Rockefeller Foundation, 1930–50 (Madison: Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, 1976).
  17. Rachel Davis-Dubois, Get Together Americans: Friendly Approaches to Racial and Cultural Conflicts through the Neighborhood-Home Project (New York: Harper, 1943), 5–6.
  18. Richard Waverly Poston, Small Town Renaissance (New York: Harper, 1950); Rockefeller Foundation Archives: RG 1.1, 200R, Box 226, 228 (Drummond); R series 236R Box 7, 8.