Photo provided courtesy of the University of Wisconin-Madison Archives.
Robert E. Gard was born at Iola, Kansas on July 3, 1910. He was educated at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, and at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. While at Cornell, he became a fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation, Humanities Division, and held numerous Rockefeller Foundation grants for many years. His mentor at Rockefeller was David H. Stevens, whose vision of a democracy included the recording of its culture by all of its citizens, as well as its gifted artists. While at Cornell, he helped to found, with Professor Alexander M. Drummond, the New York State Playwriting Project which encouraged anyone from Upstate New York to create plays, believing that such plays could be more compelling than many of the scripts on the current market; Gard assisted countless hopeful playwrites to envision, write, and produce their plays.
In 1942, after teaching playwriting at the Banff School of Fine Arts, he founded and directed the Alberta Folklore and Local History Project, in association with the University of Alberta at Edmonton, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Robert Gard helped to establish the Provincial Archives of Alberta in 1945; and his collections, assembled from firsthand accounts of pioneers still living, constitute today one of the rare collections of the University of Alberta.
In 1945 he received an offer to join the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, and took up residence there in the fall of that year. Gard often cited Wisconsin Progressive Governor Robert M. LaFollette and University of Wisconsin President Charles Van Hise who together, in the very early 20th century, conceived the “Wisconsin Idea.” The Wisconsin Idea – which provided a framework for all of Gard’s work in that state – directed the University to offer the best ideas in all fields to the service of the communities of Wisconsin, and encouraged the University faculty and extension outreach personnel to help fulfill the talents of everyone in the state – whether they could get to the campus or not. Gard named his program the Wisconsin Idea Theatre – a cultural program for the whole state which included providing access to the finest of arts to all of the people, and encouraging all of the people to write about things that mattered to them. His WHA-Radio program, and later WHA-TV program, “Wisconsin Is My Doorstep,” was well-known to the people of Wisconsin, and the radio dramas were often penned by new writers who had “found themselves” as a result of Gard’s work.
In Wisconsin, his chief areas of activity were in the theatre 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 in the College of Agriculture under University Extension and remained a specialist in the arts in smaller communities and rural areas.
Gard established the Wisconsin Idea Theatre Conference in 1945. The Conference represented virtually all theatre interests in the state, and in 1948 he established the Wisconsin Regional Writers Association. Both organizations became key institutions, furthering the native literature and lore of Wisconsin. He remained as director of Arts Development until, at age 70, he retired from all administrative duties. He helped to found the first Wisconsin Arts Foundation and Council and was the first president of the Council, which is said to have been one of the first official state arts councils in America. He founded the National Community theatre Center in 1958 and conducted a national survey of the American Community Theatre in 1957-1958 for the Rockefeller Foundation. He established the nationally known Rhinelander School of Arts in 1964, the Wisconsin Institute of Nationalities in 1966, and was appointed by Governor Knowles as state chairman of the nationalities committee. During more than ten years he wrote and directed the Holiday Folk Fair in Milwaukee, which drew annual audiences of more than 80,000. Governor Knowles also appointed Gard a member of the Portage Canal Committee, which determined uses for the historic waterway. He worked closely with the community of Portage on matters relating to its significant historical heritage and to the contemplated restoration of old Fort Winnebago.
As well as being founder of the Wisconsin Regional Writers Association, Gard was one of its early presidents. He guided the organization for more than thirty-five years as its chief adviser. When the Council for Wisconsin Writers (the book-award-giving group for professionally published books in Wisconsin), was formed in 1964, Gard was one of the initiators. He became its president and so served for more than five years. He was field editor for Duell, Sloan and Pearce, a New York publishing house, and in 1968 he established with October House, New York, the book-publishing corporation called Wisconsin House.
In 1953 the Rockefeller Foundation sent him to the British Isles to make a survey of the grassroots arts in Britain. His work had significant value in other, subsequent British-American programs and he was invited to lecture and visit at Oxford and other noted British universities. Gard was elected as a Fulbright Research Scholar to Finland in 1959. There he conducted the first study ever made of the role of the Finnish Playwright in the Finnish Theatre. He was invited to lecture at the University of Helsinki, oldest and largest of the Northern European Universities, he was invited to conduct a seminar in American Studies at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and later was invited several times to return to Finland as guest of the University of Helsinki, as lecturer at the Vaasa Summer University, and at other institutions. He was a United States State Department specialist in theatre arts, attended World Theatre gatherings, and was an international adviser to different countries on the arts. Gard was awarded the gold medal of the Finnish National Theatre for his work with Finnish Playwrights, also the Medal of the University of Helsinki and the Jubilee medal of the nation of Finland.
In 1967 he received the first large grant made by the National Endowment for the Arts for work with smaller communities. The Arts in the Small Community: A National Plan book which resulted was distributed free nationwide, and some estimates say that as many as 40,000 copies were distributed. It was reprinted twice by Americans for the Arts, and can be accessed on the Gard Foundation website. In 1967 Gard led a team, which surveyed the American Theatre for the National Theatre Conference.
Watch video excerpts from the 1987 film “Robert Gard: A Man With An Idea” produced by the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire and Marianne Strozewski:
His list of citations is long: Honored Author of Wisconsin by the Wisconsin Library Association; Kansas Theatre Hall of Honor; Pabst award for service to nationality groups; award from University Extension for Distinguished Service; Governor’s citation for creativity; many citations of merit from the State Historical Society of Wisconsin; Governor’s Award for Creativity in the Arts, 1967; major citation from the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters; President of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, 1977; Member and Honoree of the Finnish National Academy of Sciences and Letters; Honor Award from the University of Kansas; National Chairman of Fulbright Theatre Committee; Distinguished Service Award, Wisconsin Theatre Association; Honorary Member, Wisconsin Regional Writers; Honorary Member, Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets; and many other awards and citations.
In October, 1992, Gard was invited by Cornell University to address a conference on grassroots theater; he thus returned to the place where his ideas were first formulated to make his final address. He passed away on December 7, 1992.
Listen to a radio interview with Robert Gard and Walt Gander from Rhinelander, WI on WXPR: