It was late fall in 1990. I was sitting in my office on the main level of the old Walnut Street School in Wooster, Ohio, when my phone rang. This formerly abandoned and boarded up brick school building built in 1902 consisted of a large cube with square, spacious rooms in each corner on two levels. The worn hardwood floors, darkened with age, still had a bit of a shine. Tall, narrow windows provided light, while new gallery lighting enhanced the space. The ceilings were ten feet high with tall, double hung windows. In the gallery in one corner of the first floor, large four-by-eight-foot white panels hung vertically with chains from the ceiling and, appearing to float, provided wall space and helped break up the large room. The building had been purchased in 1984 by Rubbermaid Corporation, then headquartered in Wooster. They renovated it to create the Wayne Center for the Arts, of which I was executive director.
Entering the old school, you walked up some wide, worn limestone steps to the large wooden doors and immediately climbed a broad, wooden stairway to the main level, where a receptionist’s office sat across the foyer. At that level, the stairway splits after the first flight of stairs and there was a landing dwarfed by an enormous wooden three-section window known as a Palladian window. It consisted of a large arched window in the center and smaller side windows. Daylight spilled in and lit up the entire area. The old period maple floors and stairs creaked beneath you. Doorways in each corner led into the large rooms. My office was in the front right section of the building, in what used to be the old principal’s office.
The person calling that morning was Judy Chalker, then community arts coordinator at the Ohio Arts Council, a state agency in Columbus funding the arts. She wanted to know if I had heard what was happening down in Hamilton. I told her I had not. Judy worked closely with all of Ohio’s community arts organizations, advising them and readying them to apply for grants. I had worked with her discussing plans and grants beginning in 1979 when I first arrived in Wooster and the arts center, then called the Wooster Art Center, was housed in the basement of a College of Wooster building.
I asked her what was happening down in Hamilton. I had been in Wooster, located about an hour south of Cleveland, for about twelve years, having arrived there to direct their arts center after a teaching job in Missouri. She told me Hamilton was going through a bit of a transformation or was at least attempting to. The community had just completed a cultural planning process led by Ralph Burgard, and their plan was to build a new community arts center. She said she also understood they would be hiring a new director since the current one wanted to retire. She thought I should check it out and see if it was something I might be interested in pursuing. Judy reminded me it wouldn’t hurt to just take a look. I told Judy I would think about it, but…an arts center in Hamilton? I wasn’t so sure it would work, based on my limited knowledge of Hamilton as a tough, blue-collar city. I would soon find out the conditions there were far worse than I had imagined.
A few days after Judy’s call, I was sitting in my office, working on a grant application, when my phone rang again. This time it was Ralph Burgard, who was, at the time, the leading national arts consultant. Like Judy, he asked me if I was aware of what was happening in Hamilton. I told him Judy Chalker had called a few days earlier and filled me in. Burgard was an acquaintance from previous arts conferences where we had met and spoken briefly. He was somehow aware of my years in Wooster, most likely from the folks at the Ohio Arts Council, and he suggested I take a close look at Hamilton. He said it was an interesting city about three times the size of Wooster, and a group of people— following the conclusion of a cultural plan—were excited about the potential of the arts and what they could do for the community. His calling me was a boost for my ego. After all, he was the top gun in cultural arts planning in the country. But soon after the call, my ego deflated again as I began to feel inadequate to take on such a challenge. I wondered if my experience in a small town for a little more than a decade qualified me.
Burgard was an interesting man. He was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1927. He began managing orchestras and created the Rhode Island Philharmonic three years later, a typical arts administration position requiring staff management, financial responsibilities, marketing, and more. He became one of the nation’s first full-time arts council directors in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, from 1955–57. After that, he was in St. Paul, Minnesota, from 1957–65 to direct the Saint Paul Council of Arts and Sciences. He also established the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. He began consulting during the same period. Burgard was a founding member of Community Arts Councils, Inc. in 1960 and served as the first director of the Arts Councils of America (now Americans for the Arts) from 1965–70.
His impressive list of early successes earned him the unofficial title “Father of Community Arts.” He had another even less official title in the field as well: “The Pied Piper of the Arts.” This related to his uncanny ability to lead communities to imagine what could happen if the arts were given a chance. In his 1968 book, Arts in the City, Burgard argued decentralized, community-based arts organizations rooted in local history and traditions could play a transformative role in towns of all sizes. His argument was the arts should no longer be solely confined to major institutions in larger cities but should be presented from smaller organizations able to engage with the general population more fully. Burgard was familiar with the work of Robert Gard of Wisconsin in the ’40s and ’50s and agreed the arts should be “democratized,” and the smaller cities of the Midwest were best positioned to develop and present the arts by the people, for the people. This ideology was certainly in line with what I believed.
In his book, he maintained local cultural institutions “rooted in local history and traditions” could transform towns, cities, and neighborhoods in large urban areas, although that theory had not yet been fully tested. Concerned about the lack of arts education in poor neighborhoods and rural communities, Burgard also created the A+ school program. This program served as the model from which the Fitton Center’s nationally recognized arts education program would be developed. Many of us in community arts followed his lead. Was this my opportunity to put his teachings into action, I wondered.
During our phone call, I asked him if he had created the excitement in Hamilton. Humbly, he said he had, and they had invited him to lead their cultural planning process. He’d had the opportunity to work with over one hundred business and community leaders, artists, educators, elected officials, and citizens from both Hamilton and nearby Fairfield for eight months. He was a humble, intelligent man, and oozed class. I had great respect for him.
I assured him, I would take a closer look, since he seemed certain the Hamilton opportunity was a good fit for me. Despite his confidence, I didn’t sleep well after my phone conversation with Burgard, feeling I lacked the skills and tools needed to meet his expectations.
By 1990, it had become clear to me my career in community arts was my destiny. I had read Burgard’s book in the late ’70s and discovered helping communities define and utilize the arts as a tool for economic development, improving student performance, and building community was the path I wanted to take in life. Little did I know such a path was littered with unexpected challenges—like learning politics and fund development—and would force me to face obstacles including networks of conservative businessmen and elected officials uninformed about the power of the arts. Many considered the arts a luxury or frill. That attitude always grated my nerves and I had tried to use that emotional agitation to create ways to prove them wrong.