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In Focus

Michael Bouman of Missouri

By Margaret Ford | HUMANITIES, September/October 2001 | Volume 22, Number 5

As Director of the Humanities Council, Michael Bouman likes to pose this question to prospective grantees: “What would you do for your community if a catastrophe leveled this facility and eliminated the entire collection of objects and things?” He says, “An institution that already involves people in learning activities and experiences will have no problem in answering that.” He believes that non-profit institutions create a product just as businesses do, and that product is a changed human being.

Under Bouman’s leadership, the council is helping the state’s small museums and institutions become more involved in their communities through self-assessments, consultations, and cooperation. One incarnation is an urban museum in St. Louis that is working with a rural museum in the village of Arrow Rock to develop compatible programming based on each museum’s strengths and role in its community. The collaboration is part of the council’s Model Humanities project supported by NEH’s Extending the Reach initiative. At the Black World History Museum, which is primarily visited and staffed by African Americans, student interns have been gathering personal histories and objects from the surrounding neighborhood for a local exhibition. At the Friends of Arrow Rock, which is located in a predominately white area, the emphasis is on living history demonstrations. Incorporating their different programs, these museums are creating a joint exhibition about the African American experience in Missouri.

The council has shied away from simply being a re-granting agency, focusing instead on developing programs that directly engage citizens in live experiences in their home communities. Small, intense brainstorming sessions modeled after the architectural charette are an integral part of that assistance, a conceptual strategy that Bouman learned from his architect father. Conducted in partnership with the Missouri Arts Council, the typical charette is a one- to two-day workshop facilitated by professional consultants to bring fresh perspectives to small organizations. For example, the home of the lateragtime composer John William “Blind” Boone was the site of a proposed renovation in Columbia, but the final design was still undecided. Several diverse community interests were brought together in a charette and their differences were quickly ironed out. The result was a consensus to remake the house into a self-supporting cultural heritage museum.

Bouman joined the Missouri Council as its director in September of 1995, following an eighteen-year stint as program director at the Vermont Council on the Humanities. His arrival coincided with an anticipated disaster in federal support. In response, he streamlined existing programs and rethought many others. First-time state funding was the council’s goal, and an improved relationship with the state legislature resulted in an appropriation of $100,000 that year, which has since grown to $300,000. Recently, the legislature has established a ten-year “Cultural Trust,” a development that will benefit the council and five other state partners through the proceeds from a dedicated tax. The new monies generated will be used to further the educa-tional aims of the council.

Bouman believes in the power of education. “By education, I don’t mean school,” he says, “I mean human beings having experiences that improve and change the way they form thoughts and determine how they will expend energy in the world.”

Bouman is no stranger to expending energy. In June and July he generally gets up at 5:30 in the morning to tend to his daylilies -- a deep passion that has spawned a website on the flowers and a role as judge for national awards. He sings with the St. Louis Symphony Chorus and in the biennial Pitten Music Festival in Austria. An avid reader, he is also a published writer and scenic photographer.

Bouman’s well-rounded life has influenced the path he has carved for the council. “I believe the social function of the humanities is to improve the range and quality of thought,” he says. “What the humanities do for an individual, a humanities foundation does for the institutions of society. That’s my creed in a nutshell.”