Fifty years ago, on September 29, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 at a White House Rose Garden ceremony.
In the last five decades, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has made roughly 63,000 grants totaling $5.3 billion, reflecting the significance that our nation’s leaders continue to place on the advancement of fundamental knowledge in the humanities — comparable to the importance of the National Science Foundation’s mission of advancing scientific knowledge.
Five years after the act was signed into law, in October 1970, Wyoming was one of two states that participated in an experiment that resulted in an extraordinary innovation. Congress wanted to see the NEH bring humanities programs to the public, something the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) had already accomplished with great success.
Of course the performing and visual arts are aimed, by their very nature, at public audiences. Moreover, NEA provided local funding through state-level arts councils, tied into their respective state governments. NEH had no such state-level counterparts. And so, trial programs were established in six states, testing three different approaches. Two states used existing arts councils to distribute or “re-grant” NEH funds; two used existing adult education programs at colleges; and two more had new committees created for the purpose of creating public humanities programs, drawing members from “historical societies, libraries, educational institutions, and public television.”
The new committees, established in Wyoming and Oregon, immediately proved the most successful and became the basis for what are now 56 state and territorial humanities councils. Like the Wyoming Humanities Council (WHC), all are independent 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations that provide unique humanities-based community-grounded programs, products, and services to their respective jurisdictions.
That is how the people of Wyoming influenced the way America discusses and invests in humanities study. To further reinforce the democratic spirit of it all, communities submit grants to their state councils, which further localizes the decisions about what humanities content they study and present. Then, for oversight, the volunteer board, representing the whole state, votes on the value of the conversations and cultural experiences the communities want to have.
State humanities councils were formed to ensure the study of humanities wouldn’t stop at the “ivory towers” of the universities and cultural institutions of our major cities, but find homes in our rural hamlets. In Wyoming, this investment runs well into the seven-figure range. In the past decade alone, the NEH and WHC have invested more than $14 million in programs and direct grant funding to Wyoming-based institutions.
These monies help curate exhibits and programs in places like the Buffalo Bill Museum and Wyoming Territorial Prison, fund media created by Wyoming citizens for Wyoming PBS, and support community events across the state that fuel our tourist economy and help attract new businesses to our state. And, while the economic boon of cultural programming is great, the fundamental goal behind the endowment was ensuring our democracy.
The humanities are the works that comprise the canon of human wisdom — our histories, philosophies, religions, arts, laws, ethical considerations, and the criticisms and theories of each. They are our centuries old arguments and exist to keep us thoughtful and honest about who we are in the present. They make us think.
The National Endowment for the Humanities was part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Program to eliminate poverty and racial injustice. While our nation has made progress on both fronts, economic inequality and racial/ethnic/social injustice are still major issues for American society. How can public humanities impact these issues? By bringing humanities to bear on the specific concerns that are relevant to the state and making them understandable to the public — to ordinary people.
State councils have an implicitly populist orientation because they are closer to the people and able to respond to the needs and interests of local communities. We can tackle the tough issues of local, national, and global concern by bringing historical and humanist perspectives to the problems of our times. State councils don’t impose a point of view. We use the tools of our disciplines — humanities-led public discussion, historical analyses, philosophical principles, poetry and literature to name a few — to provide a bridge between widely differing points of view and help people find common ground.
To celebrate these important anniversaries, WHC will spend the coming year helping Wyoming grapple with issues our citizens really care about: refugee resettlement and immigration, cultural diversity, water and natural resource management, the importance of journalistic integrity, civility and civic engagement. Our work strengthens the creative and cultural economy of our state and makes Wyoming the great place to live that we all know it to be. I hope you will join us in our mission to expand our horizons through critical and creative thinking about the human experience.
— Shannon D. Smith is the seventh Executive Director of the Wyoming Humanities Council (www.ThinkWY.org). She is a historian and author who writes about women in Wyoming and the Frontier West.
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