Smith spearheads foundation for humanities

The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, which awards grants to humanities programs in the state of Massachusetts, recently announced the election of Williams Dean of the Faculty David L. Smith to the position of president of the board of directors.

Smith, who is dean of the faculty and a professor of English at Williams College, is also an accomplished author and poet, writing under the pen name D.L. Crockett-Smith. His two-year term as president of the board of directors began in September.

Smith has been working with the Foundation since 1994, when he was appointed to the board by then Governor William F. Weld.

“I feel honored to be in this position,” Smith said. “It is a large responsibility to provide leadership for public humanities programming when the level of interest in the humanities is declining.”

This decreasing interest in the humanities is something that Smith hopes to change. “I see gearing the Massachusetts Foundation up for an expanded role as one of the challenges before me,” he said.

The Foundation, which is the state branch of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), funds numerous humanities projects throughout Massachusetts with money it receives from the government, state agency sources such as the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and private contributions. The Foundation funds programs that include public forums, lectures, library programs, film, video, radio documentaries and other publications and exhibits dealing with the humanities. The Foundation also grants approximately $350,000 annually to nonprofit organizations sponsoring humanities programs.

“The Foundation throughout history has been reliant on the NEH for funding, but now we’re receiving state money and private funding,” said Smith. “We need to re-examine our funding priorities due to changes at the NEH.” For instance, the National Endowment for the Humanities has stopped funding documentary film projects, and Smith said the Massachusetts Foundation must consider whether it will continue to keep funding for such projects in its budget.

“These types of projects are very expensive,” Smith said. “We’re asking ourselves if we should continue to fund them.”

Smith said he hopes to turn the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities into a more high profile organization during his term as president. “The Foundation has had a rather low profile so far; we’re often confused with the Cultural Council, which is an arts funding agency. We are a humanities funding agency,” said Smith.

“Our goal is to involve scholars with projects to ensure the quality and validity of programs,” he added. “We are concerned with accuracy, not performance.”

Smith said he believes it is important for people to learn to distinguish between programming with a solid base of scholarship and that in which such a base is lacking.

“I see a challenge for the Foundation in trying to get programming based on good scholarship,” he said.

In addition to other projects, the Foundation is currently working on a project to honor women who have contributed to public life in Massachusetts. The state set aside $120,000 to commission artists to paint a mural and individual portraits honoring six women who played an important role in the development of public policy in Massachusetts.

The women being honored are: Dorothea Lynde Dix, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Lucy Stone, Mary Kenney O’Sullivan, Sarah Parker Redmond, and Florence Hope Luscomb. The women contributed to the betterment of working conditions for women, the abolitionist movement, the fight for women’s suffrage, and the improvement of conditions for prisoners and the mentally ill.

Smith noted that the Foundation was not the originating source for the project, but it was selected as the right group to initiate support and funding.

Another project designed by the Foundation is the Millenium Library Project, which was launched in order to encourage discussion on the approaching millenium. A list of books that deal with this topic has been compiled and will be distributed to libraries throughout the state for use in reading groups.

Smith has been involved in putting together the package that libraries will receive. He said the goal of the project is to involve scholars from the area in the reading and discussion groups.