Linking the arts and human needs

A central message of all the arts is that humanity need never despair. That is why it is so encouraging to come across arts-promotion groups which are making things bloom despite today's wintry economic climate.

And such groups do exist. Looking around the United States one sees that even small projects can have a substantial impact. One such group is the Wisconsin Coalition for the Arts and Human Needs, a nonprofit organization based in Milwaukee. Since its inception in 1978, WisCAHN has worked to make the arts more accessible to the elderly, the handicapped, and the incarcerated.

Although its constituency makes up nearly a quarter of Wisconsin's population , WisCAHN is determined to reach all of these people, not just a few. There is plenty of distance yet to travel, but the coalition is well on its way. To learn about its work is to visualize an army of staffers blanketing the state, spending many hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yet WisCAHN's annual budget has never exceeded $83,000. The coalition has only two full-time staff members, two part-time work-study students, and a 40-hour-a-month project coordinator. It also relies on volunteers.

The key to the group's success? They act as a magnet and a catalyst for creativity. Much of their energy goes into raising funds for groups with talent but no money. Their projects are small but often reach beyond Wisconsin's borders. WisCAHN emphasizes training, and creates materials which can be used by thousands of people, once produced, at very little cost.

Examples: It has surveyed the state to find out just what needs doing, compiled directories of artists and resources, and spearheaded radio dramas produced by and for older adults. It has brought theater programs into prisons and training programs into hundreds of nursing homes. It has produced a film, ''A Time Together, A Time to Share,'' which shows the joy art can bring into the home environment, and demonstrates how parents of handicapped children can create such art - and involve the whole family.

WisCAHN's way of doing business may bring more glory to others than it does to itself. But its efforts have not gone unnoticed. Ernest Boyer, chairman of the National Committee/Arts for the Handicapped, in a telegram he sent to a benefit staged for WisCAHN, saluted the coalition's ''energetic work'' as a ''national model of creative programming.''

The coalition can serve as an example for all those who wish to live with artistry, whatever their field of endeavor. It shows how to strengthen people's abilities, rather than merely sympathize with their limitations. It demonstrates that effectiveness calls for praticality as well as idealism.

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