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In Focus

Building the Humanities in Utah

By Margaret Ford | HUMANITIES, July/August 2002 | Volume 23, Number 4

“I love telling people about what the council is doing,” says Cynthia Buckingham, executive director of the Utah Humanities Council, or UHC. Through statewide discussions and family literacy programs, the council is helping to reinvigorate Utah’s civic culture.

The UHC wants to emphasize the relevance of the humanities in everyday life. “When the state humanities councils were first set up, we were charged with applying the humanities to the current conditions of American life,” Buckingham says. “And that was the only thing the state councils were supposed to do--public policy programming.”

The council is reintroducing this concept through astatewide program called the “Front Porch” discussion series. The title hearkens back to a time when people gathered on their front porches to discuss community issues with their neighbors. “We’ve had talks on cultural diversity and civil society, among other topics,” she says. The council responded to the terrorist attacks by creating a special edition of its Speakers Bureau called “Understanding September 11.”

Since taking the helm in 1997, Buckingham has worked to strengthen the humanities in the state. She has helped establish successful, ongoing programs, such as the Speakers Bureau series. The council now offers an annual partnership grant to a small number of institutions, exempting them from having to go through the competitive grant pool each year. “These are organizations that we have worked with a lot over the years and that have a proven track record,” she says. “The money frees them up to concentrate on long-term programming of their own.” Recipients include the Utah Shakespeare Festival, the Utah Opera Company, and the Greek Classic Theater Festival. Each hosts a series of talks about current productions.

In an effort to build bridges with other organizations, the council has created the Museum on Main Street program, a collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. Last year it brought the traveling exhibition “Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future” to Utah. The exhibition, which looks at predictions and images of the future made by Americans during the 1900s, started its tour in Brigham City and continued across the state.

Buckingham has formed partnerships in many ways. She is a founding board member and past president of the Utah Cultural Alliance, a collection of organizations whose mission is to promote Utah’s cultural community. One of the group’s accomplishments was to obtain one-tenth of 1 percent of all sales tax for Salt Lake’s cultural institutions.

Other council activities include the seven-state, NEH-funded “Moving Waters” exhibition, which will be in Salt Lake City during July and August. The recent Winter Olympic Games provided a chance for the council to create cultural programming such as a yearlong statewide reading and discussion series featuring sports biographies, myths of the settlement of the West, and American Indian literature. Buckingham is well versed in how much effort it takes to secure funding for the programs she wants to develop. Over the years, the council has gone from 95 percent dependence on federal funds to less than 50 percent. The council’s most recent coup is a $300,000 grant from the PacifiCorp Foundation for Learning to support UHC’s Motheread/Fatheread program, a nationwide literacy program that teaches parents to read to their children.

Buckingham cut her teeth in the humanities as the assistant director of government and public affairs for the Federation of State Humanities Councils. She received her B.A. in French and English from Macalister College. In 1983, she became the associate director of UHC. “From my work at the Federation of State Councils I had the advantage of knowing what state programs were most apt to succeed.” She took a brief leave of absence to help establish the Utah Humanities Center at the University of Utah before returning to the council as executive director.

Buckingham is a Midwestern transplant, born in Iowa and raised in a suburb of Minneapolis. “When we first arrived in Utah, my husband and I expected to be here for only two or three years, but living in Salt Lake City with its good mix of people and weather has been a wonderful experience,” she says. According to Buckingham, Utah’s traditionally conservative population values education. “We have one of the highest percentages of college graduates in the nation, as well as a high rate of high school graduates,” she says. “People here appreciate lifelong learning.”