Category: Education

Performing Arts
by Linda Graham

The Prologue to the Part One of the history of the National Academy of Arts is brief. It was an experiment in private education aimed at producing superior students trained to understand and perform in the various arts.

Its fantastic results are documented in the Linda Graham history that follows.

Richard R. Tryon
Chairman NAA 1978-1987


The early history of the NAA is beautifully documented in the following work, written mostly by Linda Graham, now a teacher of ballet at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Ms. Graham, when she was a student in that first edition of the NAA that offered classes and graduated many fine students between 1973 and 1978, acquired not only a set of artistic skills that combined with academic prowess, but an eventual desire to document for her fellow students and the world, an evidence of what happened, how and why in Champaign, Illinois during those years.

When I discovered that Linda was researching the history with an intent to publish her work, I was delighted to contribute and pleased that she provided authorization for her work to be made available on the web page ‘’ so that all could have access to her work and also to provide a place for more information to be gathered from students of the second edition of the NAA that operated from 1982-1987, producing the other half of the graduates of this noble experiment.

We shall endeavor to update her work as well as that of others who contribute to a living history that shows what happened to the many graduates. For example, I recently visited again with Paula Marsters, now of NYC, but when she was a student in 1987, she was from Humacao, Puerto Rico, as were two other students at that time. She and her husband are awaiting the expected arrival of their first born in May of 2001. She still reflects with fond recollection on the most meaningful experience of her life- at least up to that point- of her years at the NAA.

Although Linda Graham has found a publisher to print her final edition of her study, we are able to showcase an earlier version until such time as she can release the final one. We do hope that others will see this work and write to add materials that will enhance both the record of the first and the second chapters of this amazing story.

At a time in the nation’s political history, where control of the Washington, D.C. scene has brought back a second edition of the Bush family approach to the executive office, and at a time when his party controls the Congress by the narrowest of margins, one wonders if the so-called liberal agenda in support of the arts will be destroyed, amended, discarded, or improved upon? While it may be difficult for self-professed liberals to define that agenda for the arts in any uniform detail, it is fair to say that support of the National Endowment for the Arts, is an Icon of great significance.

In the tradition of the European model, or at least that which followed the age of Kings when Patrons financed the creative arts, the U.S. support evolved to include a similar state supporting vehicle called the National Endowment. Thus, by taxing all, funds are set aside to be managed by a political process that interacts with representatives of the arts from all types of activity so labeled. In fact, the process is less than successful. Fraud, graft, and political payoffs are just as common in this field as in all others where the government has the license to redistribute wealth in the name of some politically proclaimed to be self-evident noble purpose.

As in any such situation, it is imperative that those who seek and those who award grants, have evidence of being democratic in their process. This almost always translates into a numbers game. How many persons will benefit from any grant? How many will be touched by it as witnesses?  How will they become better citizens as a result?

Winning a grant for a great painter, who paints frescoes on church ceilings is unlikely, even if millions will look at it, for the overworked and misunderstood doctrine of ‘separation of church and state’ gets in the way of consideration, no matter that the artist’s name is Michelangelo! Grants for large symphonic orchestras are easier to endorse, but potters will have a hard time finding a means to fight for consideration, much less any results.

As we enter the age of the Presidency of George W. Bush, we will wonder what his vision of ‘compassionate conservatism’ will bring to this issue? It would be my hope that he trusts in the people to respond to the many needs of the arts via private and voluntary contributions of time, talent and treasure. The Bush legacy will then depend upon the application of changes in the law that reduce taxes for all. One of the benefits will be witnessed when we find out what happens. Will the several thousands of highly paid football, basketball and other sport figures, along with the multi-millionaires of the entertainment industry, discover reasons to contribute to individual arts type entities? Will such personal decisions be less political? Will they allow potters to obtain more help than they get from the NEA? Will Arts schools of all types gain new support and contributions, because they produce a superior type of individual to enter the nation’s pool of talented individuals? Will such individuals become performers and professional artisans?  Or will they transfer their superior mental skill developments into other productive channels? Perhaps into development of new, as yet unknown art forms?

Clearly the MacArthur Foundation has shown a willingness to move in directions that no bureaucrat of the NEA could ever consider because of the fear of failure- a circumstance to be avoided assiduously with the placing of tax dollars from the public. What administrator wants to answer the question- “You mean you spent NEA money on something that never reached out and touched numbers of citizens in a way deemed to be acceptably positive?”

I can speak and write as one who tried successfully to raise about $500,000 per year in the twin cities of Champaign-Urbana, with a county around that contained perhaps 150,000 people together. It was not possible in 1978, during the years of the Carter administration, to get taxes lowered so as to make more funds for philanthropy available. High marginal rates did make a difference to the giver in terms of providing some tax relief for money contributed, but history shows that people give more when they have more to give!

Corporate giving has increased significantly in some periods of American history and it has done so best when it enjoys a useful recognition for its effort. Arts organizations have understood this need in their solicitations and such have been very successful among those institutions where publicity before the corporation’s customers is evident. Unfortunately, this again does little for the potters! Their hope comes from two sources: One, not requiring a lot of support; and two, joining into clubs where some with funds can share with others who have talent but lack fiscal resources.

As to funding an organization like the NAA, the process is complex. It is currently complicated by the state funding of several schools in North Carolina and Alabama which are able to share the burden of tuition so that even out of state students can be enrolled at lower cost than is possible with a private organization that tries to compete for talent. Yes, talent is needed to make any such school able to attract faculty, that wants to teach, and students that come to learn.

Will the NAA ever rise again somewhere? Yes, it may, and readers may be amazed to know how close we came in 1987 to saving the institution with a sizable Endowment! The prestigious MacArthur Foundation gave consideration to funding a $5 million grant that would have let the school move forward instead of closing in 1987. A number of ideas were considered at that time aimed at saving the institution. We even looked at moving to a nearby town of Monticello where a large former estate home was contributed to the NAA so that it could house the student body. An abandoned medical factory nearby would have become a studio and school and the old hotel in Champaign would have been sold to pay debt.

In reality, the scale would have been probably too small to gain sufficient efficiency to spread costs in a way that would have allowed a competitive posture against other schools. But, we could have saved the faculty and the student body and administration and tried, if that grant for an endowment had come forth. Unfortunately, a close connection to the president of the MacArthur Foundation was not enough.

One other factor would have been equally troublesome if not insurmountable. Our president, Mary Moore, was already in poor health and ultimately died of lung cancer from a life of smoking, in 1992. Although nobody is indispensable, we were too thin in administrative talent to have endured such a loss; and then be able to recruit a replacement. We will never know if her health contributed to the failure to win that endowment.

Another part of the Bush Administration vision may be important to note here. It involves the view that public education should be more competitive and that use of federal and state funds to support alternative schools is a major means of achieving the goal of breaking down the monopoly power of the public school system.

As long as the powerful National Education Association or other so-called ‘professional’ unions can control, with political help, the way that public schools will utilize public dollars for education, we can expect mediocrity to rule. After all, every organized union, by definition must protect all to the level of performance achieved by the least talented, so that uniform pay scales can be maintained and all enjoy job protection.

A program of vouchers could do a lot more for a school like the NAA, then even the legislation that we crafted and had passed in just six weeks in the summer of 1982 in Illinois! Few laws are conceived and passed so fast. I was able to obtain help from the Champaign Unit IV school superintendent- yes, the same school system that fought and lost the famous Supreme Court Case named McCollum vs Champaign Unit IV. That was the case in 1954 that a future friend named John Franklin lost and it set aside the notion that school time and rooms could be used after school hours by local clergy to teach children about their religions. It was a landmark decision.

We came forth with a novel idea, still on the books of law in Illinois, that any private school, supported by philanthropic means as a non-profit entity, could send its students for academic instruction to any local public grade or high school, and have such students be counted in the formula for calculating state aid based on daily attendance, even if the students came from homes in other districts or states. Because it is not expected that any private school teaching academic subjects will use this advantage, the legislature realized that the law could only benefit a specialized school of instruction.

We were delighted with the law and offered to send our students in the fall of 1982 to the same Unit IV high school. Unfortunately, the school board had to endorse the offer and it had just seen six of its members defeated in an election. On its last meeting of the ‘lame duck’ members, we expected a routine acceptance. Its members decided to let the new board do this in a month. The new board took six months to discover how to run itself and tabled our support motion in the meantime. Of course, we could not wait and went to Kermit Hardin, then Superintendent of the Urbana schools. He quickly got us the needed ok from the board and then found that the teachers of physical education simply stated that if Academy students came and took no PE from them, they would close the school because they have a monopoly on PE!

So, we recruited and added an academic faculty in the remaining three weeks before school opened and converted rooms at the Inman Hotel to serve as classrooms. We did have a fine academic program in spite of this failure and did it for a fraction of the money anyone could have imagined in public education! Principal James Mullady, now an attorney in Champaign, achieved so much with so little, but with a staff of teachers that were delighted to have students that wanted to learn, and a place that enjoyed few, if any, restrictions in the way of doing so!

Could another man or woman of vision like Dr. Gilbert Wright come forth again and start a new version of the NAA? The answer, of course, is yes. Although he, for example, would be quick to allow that he had high hopes of making his successful NAA attractive to his family fortune, he did not have the power to bring that resource to the scene. Any would be successor must have such a foundation behind the effort. I see no reason why such a school can not be recreated in the new millennium, and I certainly would be pleased to encourage one that was properly organized and able to operate in such a delightful community as the one that perished in 1987 in Champaign, IL.

It may seem from this review that readers now have more of a preview of what ultimately happened to the NAA than to what was behind its first chapter. If so, the problem is somewhat solved by noting that the first edition of the NAA went through many similar events and difficulties that were resolved in imaginative ways. As time permits, I will add some of those stories to this section of the history of the NAA.

Richard R. Tryon
Jan. 3, 2001



Next Chapter