Executive Function

Maryland’s Phoebe Stein Davis

Phoebe Stein Davis is determined to make the humanities relevant.

HUMANITIES, July/August 2009, Volume 30, Number 4

Not to be boastful (and she’s not), but Phoebe Stein Davis lays claim to a pretty spectacular humanities pedigree. She is kin to a seminal figure in twentieth-century modernism: Gertrude Stein, avant-garde prose stylist, art collector, and iconoclast who surrounded herself with and influenced some of the greatest writers and artists of her day. Stein had family roots in Baltimore and studied medicine at Johns Hopkins for more than three years before dropping out. While there, she took up boxing, enjoyed a good cigar, and was very close to her cousin in town, who just happened to be grandfather to Davis, the executive director of the Maryland Humanities Council. 

After Stein pulled up stakes and embarked on a memorable literary career in Paris, she kept up a thirty-year correspondence with Davis’s grandmother. The original letters and the home movies of Davis’s father and grandparents with the legendary author are currently housed at Yale’s Beinecke Library. Davis had the fun of diving into that treasure trove while writing her doctoral dissertation about Stein’s deep connection to American culture.

The forty-two-year-old Davis, an energetic and passionate advocate of the humanities, shares her distant cousin’s wide-ranging intellectual curiosity. (I’m not sure about the cigars and boxing.) “What’s so exciting about this job is that I’m learning something new every day,” Davis says.
A native of Maryland’s Montgomery County, just north of Washington, D.C., the relatively new council head—she took over in July 2008—is reacquainting herself with her home state after seventeen years in the Midwest. It turns out there is a lot to discover, even in her old backyard. Davis drove by the house she grew up in, a farmhouse her father had bought in 1946 when it was still on a dirt road, and she didn’t recognize the place because the area has changed so dramatically.

That kind of transformation and dislocation will be part of a public dialog that Davis and her creative staff are trying to spur in a two-year-long programming initiative set to begin in 2010. The council is winding down a hugely successful series of programs and conversations dealing with race, which won a Helen and Martin Schwartz Prize for Public Humanities Programs in 2008, and Davis is eager to tackle head-on other complex issues. “Our job and my goal is to be increasingly relevant,” she says. The new programming will center on the idea of building and reimagining communities. It will ask, how do Marylanders define themselves and the role they play in their own communities? Contentious issues affect everyone statewide: questions about the economy, education, crime, the environment, growth and sprawl, preservation and sustainability. On that final issue Davis admits, “I’m not sure anyone knows what that means anymore.”

The new initiative still taking shape will ask what divides communities and citizens, and how the humanities can help bridge those differences. As Davis points out, the very geography of Maryland is significant: “We’re in a small state with a lot of visible and invisible borders and boundaries. We’re a border state, we’ve got the Beltway, we’ve got the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. We’ve got the Mason-Dixon Line, for goodness’ sake. We have a lot of communities that are very close to each other but may not know much about each other.” Her goal: bringing people together through dialog.

The current struggling economy does not faze Davis. “Humanities now more than ever,” she says with conviction, because disciplines such as history, literature, law, and philosophy speak to the human condition and “help us think about what has come before, what is happening now, and what will happen in the future.” Embracing every possible avenue of communication, from YouTube to Twitter to Facebook (on which the council has more than a thousand “friends”), to get the council’s message across, Davis is working to deepen existing partnerships with cultural institutions, universities and colleges, public radio stations, and corporations statewide. The Maryland council’s tagline is “Opening Eyes. Opening Ears. Opening Minds.” And Davis is doing all of that.