Oregon Humanities was born from an experiment. In 1970, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) was up for reauthorization and under pressure from Congress to expand its reach beyond the college and university campuses where most of its efforts had been focused since its creation in 1965. The NEH set out to test three state-based program models in six states: in Maine and Oklahoma, it handed responsibility for humanities programming to state arts agencies; in Georgia and Missouri, it turned to university extension services; and in Oregon and Wyoming, it created new organizations in the form of volunteer committees.
The Oregon Committee for the Humanities was inaugurated in 1971 with a $100,000 grant from the NEH. Its founding members included the chair of the Oregon Historical Society, a state education official, the head of a county library system, a newspaper publisher, a college trustee, and a manager of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The theme of its first three years of programming was “Man and the Land,” and the first projects it supported included books, historical research, street theater, an experimental magazine, and multiple models of community conversation.
In the NEH’s great experiment, the committee model won out: today, the great majority of the fifty-six state and territorial humanities councils are independent nonprofit organizations. These organizations have evolved far beyond their original mandate of redistributing federal funds, and Oregon Humanities is no exception. We have produced books and magazines, classes and conferences, radio and television programs. We have supported exhibitions and installations, lectures and living history performances, a surprising number of puppet shows, and lots and lots of conversations.
The spirit of experimentation that kicked off this endeavor has persisted. We hope it will continue to be present in our work for the next fifty years, as we join everyone who lives here in trying to figure out how to better live, learn, and thrive together.
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