A 50+ -year tradition

Robert Gard, Founder of SOA
“The School has been a place for students of all ages and backgrounds to exchange ideas, dream dreams, learn new ways to express themselves, and further the whole idea that art (written, painted and otherwise) is, indeed, a necessity in a happy, everyday life.”

In the summer of 1964, about 50 students joined 6 writing instructors in northern Wisconsin for the first School of the Arts at Rhinelander. Since then SOA has grown to include hundreds of student and staff participants and the 50 workshops available during the 1-week program.

The talented UW-Madison and Extension professor, author, and innovator Robert E. Gard built the school on many of his core beliefs: the importance of a supportive environment to help people grow as artists, the power of every individual to express themselves through one or more forms of the arts, and the Wisconsin Idea of bringing the resources of the university to the citizens of the state. Read more about Robert Gard and the Gard Foundation here»

Making it happen

In 1967, Gard wrote and received the first grant ever awarded to rural America by the National Endowment for the Arts. This project, entitled “The Arts in the Small Community,” would enable 5 rural towns in Wisconsin, most of which had little “arts infrastructure,” to experiment with designing a program of participatory arts for themselves. Over 3 years, Gard and his staff worked with these communities to establish and sustain their own arts programs and resources. Results of this effort included state-wide tours by professional companies, the School of the Arts at Rhinelander, and the start of the Northern Arts Council.

Members of the local community were key in planning the school. Among them was Ced Vig, superintendent of the Rhinelander School District. Vig worked with the School Board to provide a place for this workshop, initially a 3-week experience, to thrive and grow. His legacy is carried on today as School of the Arts is housed in Rhinelander's James Williams Elementary School. For decades, the City of Rhinelander, the Rhinelander School District, the Northern Arts Council, the Rhinelander Chamber of Commerce, and other community leaders and organizations have supported SOA.

Past leaders and instructors

Initially the School of the Arts focused on writing and involved many well-known authors and teachers. Farmers and community members from northern Wisconsin were encouraged to share their stories. August Derleth, the prolific Sauk City author, served as writer-in-residence from 1965 until his death just before the 1971 School.

As SOA expanded to include other art forms, the list of prominent guest instructors from across the country grew to include Robert Bly, Studs Terkel, Jesse Stuart, Dale Wasserman, Mark Harris, A.B. Guthrie, Harry Mark Petrakis, Archibald MacLeish, and Valfred Thelin. Well-respected Wisconsin teachers — such as Tere Rios, Robert Blei, and Gard himself — returned year after year to inspire developing artists.

Picture of Harv ThompsonIn 1985, Harv Thompson took over as director of School of the Arts. With his warm welcome for students and kind demeanor, Professor Thompson was the friendly face of SOA for almost 20 years. He took School of the Arts to a new level by adding more workshops, connecting community partners, and expanding the financial assistance program to make the week more affordable for dozens of participants.

In a spirit of collaboration and support, Professor Thompson designed events that brought people together throughout the week. He introduced mid-day forums that featured artists or authors; he started the Open House that invited community members to spend the evening with students and faculty; and he implemented the mini-class series, allowing students and visitors to try an art form that had sparked their curiosity. Professor Thompson retired in 2004.

Picture of Miranda HawkMiranda Hawk started working with the School of the Arts in 2003; her first SOA as director was 2004 (with Professor Thompson literally handing off a hand-carved key in one of the lunch forums). During Hawk's tenure the playwright labs were expanded and a culinary arts area was developed. She also worked diligently to expand SOA's and the UW's relationship with the community, working closely with the Rhinelander Chamber of Commerce and hand-in-hand with Downtown Rhinelander, Inc.

Hawk left UW-Madison in 2010, and was replaced as SOA director by Lynn Tarnoff.

Picture of Lynn TarnoffLynn brought to the program a wealth of experience as an award-winning artist, successful entrepreneur, and art teacher. Under her leadership, the program expanded further to incorporate workshops attending to the mind, body, and spirit. The SOA Marketplace became an opportunity for attendees to showcase and sell their wares and to expand their personal art collections.

SOA truly provided a welcoming environment to nourish the creative spirit in thousands of artists and seekers – poets, painters, novelists, cooks, performers, and others seeking to satisfy their curiosity and cultivate their muses.

Continuing a creative community

The rich tradition of SOA lives on in all of those who experienced it. We look forward to hearing about new experiences that arise in the community. We also encourage those who are interested in continuing to expand their learning horizons to explore other creative communities through Continuing Studies’ online offerings or its various retreats and conferences. Click here to learn more about personal enrichment offerings»