50 years of Wisconsin Humanities

We’re celebrating 50 years of Wisconsin Humanities bringing together individuals and communities, each with their own story to tell.

Since our organization's founding as an independent nonprofit in 1972, Wisconsin Humanities has worked in every corner of the state with YOU to explore what it means to be human, to be part of a democracy, and to strengthen each of our communities.

Our grant program is a critical and unique source of funding for projects that engage Wisconsinites in conversations about contemporary public policy and social concerns. We have stayed responsive to the needs and aspirations of our constituents by building humanities programs for teachers and librarians, programs on the radio and in the town hall, and programs that humanize social media and public spaces.

As we celebrate our first 50 years, Wisconsin Humanities is committed to the next 50! And to a future where every person has access to cultural, educational, and civic opportunities. We are excited to work with YOU and your community, to engage in critically important issues, and to celebrate all that makes our state a place we are proud to call home.

NEH Chair Shelly Lowe offers her appreciation & congratulations.

Wisconsin Humanities 50 Anniversary Timeline



On September 29, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act into law. The act called for the creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) as separate, independent agencies. The National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965 contained a provision establishing state committees as vehicles for reaching “adult citizens of the United States with programs that would deepen and broaden their understanding of the humanities and give them a greater appreciation of the role of the humanities in contemporary life and thought.”



Established in 1972 as an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), Wisconsin Humanities is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization governed by a volunteer board of directors who come from across the state.



The NEH worked with humanities organizations and scholars in Wisconsin to create a 25-person board made up of people from across the state to review grant proposals and distribute NEH funds. Initially, the NEH required that grants support projects about current public policy. The state committees were eventually given the flexibility to fund other kinds of humanities-based activities. Originally called the “Wisconsin Humanities Committee,” and then “Wisconsin Humanities Council” until 2019, today the organization is simply known as Wisconsin Humanities.



From the beginning, Wisconsin Humanities has been affiliated with the University of Wisconsin system. In the spirit of The Wisconsin Idea, Wisconsin Humanities worked to reach people in every corner of the state. In the summer of 1977, the WHC provided funding for three scholars to spend a month in small, rural communities – two of three were the scholars’ hometowns – to offer public programs, write columns for the local newspaper, and learn about the needs of the community.



The NEH provided funding to create innovative outreach programs, including reading and discussion programs, radio broadcasts, and summer institutes for teachers. For example, a reading program was organized around a short story by Wallace Stegner. Radio broadcasts included a call-in program on the US Constitution, the individual, and the community. A summer institute for teachers offered an intensive study of texts like the Bible, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights. Wisconsin Humanities worked with community leaders in Milwaukee to develop special humanities programs in the state’s largest metro area while also working with Native American tribes to build strong relationships.



During this era,  resources and opportunities were designed for small communities with limited resources. Wisconsin Humanities launched a Speakers Bureau that brought presentations to audiences all over the state, in communities big and small. Over the next 20 years, more than 2,500 free programs explored a wide range of humanities topics in communities all over the state.

A lending library, called the Resource Center, made valuable connections with libraries and museums in small communities. Wisconsin Humanities offered traveling exhibits and reading guides, such as the Images of Rural Life book discussion series, the One Vision, Many Voices book discussion about Latino literature, and The Storytellers series focused on Native American voices.


Wisconsin Humanities offered special grants for projects that explored the state’s history as part of the statewide Sesquicentennial celebration. That year, Wisconsin was chosen by the Smithsonian Institution to be featured in the annual Folklife Festival on the National Mall.



Wisconsin Humanities prioritized resources and funding for K-12 education.  Wisconsin Teachers of Local Culture, the Wisconsin Arts Board, and the UW-Madison Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures to offer tours of the state for teachers’ continuing education. By focusing on regional histories, teachers learned how their own community’s local history and cultures could be used to build lessons in their classrooms back home.

In addition, Wisconsin Humanities brought the Motherread/Fatherread family literacy program to Wisconsin, training over 150 librarians and teachers of adult literacy students. The curriculum used children’s books to start conversations on universal themes, promote communication skills, and instill lifelong family reading habits while increasing adult learners’ and children’s literacy.



Wisconsin Humanities has been a member of the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission since its creation in 2000, helping to select each Poet Laureate and fund their public poetry projects. The first Wisconsin Poet Laureate was Ellen Kort.  In 2021 Dasha Kelly Hamilton became the ninth Wisconsin Poet Laureate to serve a two-year term (Hamilton is also the host of the second season of Wisconsin Humanities’ Human Powered podcast).


2001 – 2012 BOOK FESTIVALS

The inaugural Wisconsin Book Festival launched with $50,000 in seed funds from the Wisconsin Legislature. Throughout the decade, the Wisconsin Book Festival grew to over 100 events throughout the Madison area featuring local, national, and international authors. Additionally, Wisconsin Humanities’ grant program helped to launch and support other regional book festivals. In 2013 Wisconsin Humanities transferred leadership of the festival to the   Madison Public Library in partnership with Madison Public Library Foundation.


2004-2007 "WE THE PEOPLE"

Wisconsin Humanities offered statewide reading and discussion programs called A More Perfect Union. Libraries around the state received funds to host scholar-led book groups. The series was designed to spark conversation around themes found in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution: The Common Defense, To Establish Justice, and Domestic Tranquility.



Wisconsin Humanities brought three Smithsonian exhibits to tour Wisconsin:  Barn Again! An American Icon, Between Fences, and Key Ingredients. Collaborations with organizations in eighteen rural communities brought them training, encouraged community-building, and funded locally-themed projects. The Museum on Main Street program sparked the creation of local exhibits and programs in Wausaukee, Ladysmith, Blanchardville, Kewaunee, Osceola, Washburn, Waupaca, Hales Corners, Sauk Prairie, Clear Lake, Cable, Reedsburg, Rhinelander, River Falls, Westfield, Brodhead, and Osseo.



Wisconsin Humanities received special funding from The Mary H. Rice Foundation (and later the HRK Foundation) to expand grants for public humanities projects in northern Wisconsin. Over the next two decades, this special funding made 50 additional projects possible.



“Wisconsin Life” original radio essays started airing around the state several times a day on Wisconsin Public Radio. These short audio pieces continue to celebrate what makes Wisconsin unique through the diverse stories of its people. In addition to financial support, Wisconsin Humanities has contributed to special story series highlighting WH projects, including Working Lives and the Human Powered podcast.



Wisconsin Humanities and Wisconsin Public Television partnered to offer film screenings and discussions about outstanding women in Wisconsin’s history. The digital encyclopedia is now managed by the Gender & Women’s Studies Librarian’s Office at UW-Madison.



Wisconsin Humanities launched the Working Lives project on Labor Day 2014. The statewide initiative included a partnership with the Wisconsin Veterans Museum to tour a traveling exhibit called Working Warriors: Military Life Beyond Combat to ten communities, a series of original audio essays about people doing everything from maintaining a Milwaukee skyscraper to a Northwoods trapper that aired on Wisconsin Public Radio, and a speakers bureau called Shop Talk that offered forty-eight different presentations exploring work from different perspectives for a total of almost 200 events statewide.



Special funding from the NEH supports an expansion of the Wisconsin Humanities grant program to fund projects that explore the legacy of race and ethnicity in the United States. When those funds were expended, Wisconsin Humanities continued to prioritize funding of such projects.



Beyond the Headlines brought members of the Wisconsin and national media into conversation with local stakeholders to address critical issues. Using grants from the Andrew W.  Mellon Foundation, the program’s goal was to combat distrust in the media. Wisconsin Humanities and community partners explored issues like homelessness and climate change with experts, journalists, and the public at events in Madison, Wausau, Eau Claire, and Superior, as well as the Greater Green Bay, Northwoods, and Coulee regions.



Wisconsin Humanities began to partner with the Love  Wisconsin storytelling project to expand WH’s digital reach to Love Wisconsin’s enormous Facebook audience. The project encourages connection, compassion, and engagement among members of its uniquely diverse online audience. The partnership’s first products were a story about folklorist Jim Leary and the Love Wisconsin Conversations virtual community. What began as a partnership and social media experiment evolved into a full-fledged program of Wisconsin Humanities.



In response to the ongoing national debate about immigration, Immigrant Journeys from South of the Border ¡Mi travesía hasta Wisconsin! the traveling exhibit started touring with seven stops in Dane County. Created by Wisconsin Humanities in partnership with Centro Hispano of Dane County, journalist Bill Berry, and photographer Gary Porter, the exhibit and accompanying website feature eight people who came from south of the US border and now live in Wisconsin. In 2019-2022, the exhibit toured to over fifteen locations.



As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world, Wisconsin Humanities moved quickly to offer rapid-response CARES grants to help libraries, museums, and other nonprofits survive the financial hardships brought on by COVID-19. Wisconsin Humanities awarded $548,000 to 82 organizations across the state. Funding for these grants was provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act economic stabilization plan.



Wisconsin Humanities awarded $800,000 to 99 organizations with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. This special funding in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic provided crucial support for diverse organizations that enrich our state’s cultural landscape today and into the future.  

To showcase exceptional stories of real people who are making a difference in their communities with the power of the humanities, Wisconsin  Humanities launched the Human Powered podcast. Each episode features the voices of inspiring people doing local work with the support of a Wisconsin Humanities grant -- from Milwaukee to the Driftless area, Oshkosh, Green Bay, and on the Red Cliff Reservation.

Love Wisconsin shared over 120 original personal stories from Wisconsinites living through the pandemic to its audience of over 100,000 people.


2022 Building for the Future

Wisconsin Humanities launched Community Powered in Spooner, Racine, and Appleton, and in the Forest County Potawatomi nation. This brand-new initiative included hiring four recent humanities graduates to work in partnership with the local libraries in these pilot communities. A rigorous training curriculum based on innovative cultural landscape, design, and storytelling methods, alongside collaboration with the professional team at the libraries, gave the community both tools and resources to unearth and tell meaningful stories, and create a local project of lasting value. Community Powered is an investment in Wisconsin that will lead to bold visions and concrete plans for making our state an even better place to live for the next 50 years and beyond.