"There is poetry as well as production on the farm.”
– Glenn Frank, University of Wisconsin President 1925-37
The Great Depression is raging, and you are at the University of Wisconsin hoping to meet America's first-ever university artist-in-residence. Where will you look? The Art Department? Good guess, but no. You may have more luck at the College of Agriculture, where Dean Chris Christensen collaborates with extension agents and a rural sociologist to enrich farm lives beyond the classroom.
The dean was inspired by the Wisconsin Idea that the university should bring knowledge directly to the citizens, and by folk schools he saw while studying in Denmark. “Christensen supposedly said that one of his goals upon becoming dean was to put some culture back in agriculture,” according to Wisconsin author Jerry Apps. “He embraced the Danes’ philosophy that rural people should have the opportunity to study art and poetry as well as learn how to improve their cattle and field crops.”
Kansas painter John Steuart Curry took the job in 1936, with a small studio on campus and few defined duties. He taught occasional noncredit short courses and traveled the state to encourage creative painting among farmers, blacksmiths, housewives, and one-room country schoolteachers. He organized a Rural Art Exhibit in Madison featuring thirty amateur painters during Farm and Home Week in 1940. The event took hold and grew from year to year.
Times changed. The Wisconsin Rural Art Program (WRAP) expanded to include cities, changed the “R” in its name to “Regional,” and moved into the university's Division of Continuing Studies. A victim of the same budget cuts that ended the Continuing Studies writing program, it is now run by the Association of Wisconsin Artists. An annual WRAP exhibit in Ag Hall (virtual this year) recalls its origins in the university’s agricultural college.
Image: John Steuart Curry, “View of Madison with Rainbow,” 1937, courtesy of Kiechel Fine Art, Lincoln, Nebraska
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.