Fifty-one years ago, on September 29, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act at a White House Rose Garden ceremony. Five years later, 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. Because the performing and visual arts are aimed, by their very nature, at public audiences, the NEA immediately began providing local funding through state-level arts councils tied into their respective state governments. The NEH had yet to implement such state-level counterparts.
Trial programs were established in six states, testing three different approaches. Two states used existing arts councils to distribute or “regrant” NEH funds; two used existing adult education programs at colleges; and two more launched new non-profit organizations for the purpose of creating public humanities programs. These non-profit organizations, established in Wyoming and Oregon, immediately proved the most successful and what we proudly call “the Wyoming model” became the basis for what are now 56 state and territorial humanities councils. We are all independent 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations governed by volunteer board members who are passionate about providing humanities-based, community-centric programs, products, and services to our respective states or territories.
Forty-six years later, after investing tens of millions of dollars in public humanities programming as the Wyoming Council for the Humanities and the Wyoming Humanities Council, we have simply become Wyoming Humanities. Our mission is foster opportunities for communities to interact and discuss issues that are important to them. We use the humanities to ask questions that give insight into the human experience by analyzing the past, exploring the present, and thinking about the future. We bring scholars and subject matter experts to all of the communities in the state in order to help our citizens take a closer look at life.
Our new brand, with a magnifying glass between the word “think” and the abbreviation for WY, is a play on the idea that we are asking Wyoming to think “why?” in order to think more deeply and more creatively—or to take a closer look. Humanities, like the lens of the magnifying glass, are a valuable tool that can illuminate, filter, investigate, or explore complex questions.
I’m sure you will agree that now, more than ever, Wyoming needs to think deeply and critically about the issues that are shaping our state and our nation and we invite you to engage in the conversation with us and your neighbors as we seek to explore solutions to the issues of our times. Our new website is more than a calendar of events; it is Wyoming’s home for thought-leadership on the power of the humanities to change lives and improve society. Our new programs, including thinkWY Gatherings, thinkWY Insight, thinkWY Road Scholars, along with our grants and reading programs are the manifestation of the power of the humanities to help us take a closer look at ourselves, our communities, our state, our nation, and our world.
Over the next few months we will be traveling the state to celebrate our new name, website, and brand and to ask you for suggestions for topics and issues that your community and/or our state needs to discuss. Watch for this e-newsletter, follow us on Facebook, and check our website regularly and let us know how we’re doing. If you have any suggestions, please write to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shannon D. Smith is the sixth Executive Director of Wyoming Humanities. She is a historian and author who writes about women in Wyoming and the Frontier West.