In January, we shared that 2023 marks Humanities Texas's fiftieth anniversary. Throughout the year, we are hosting a series of receptions around the state. We're also highlighting significant milestones from our organizational history in our newsletter. This month, we remember our founding period and the contributions of former Executive Director James F. Veninga, whose tenure spanned 1975–1997.
In 1965, Congress passed Public Law 209, jointly establishing a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). In the law, Congress outlined the central goals and functions of the two new agencies. NEH should:
(1) develop and encourage the pursuit of a national policy for the promotion of progress and scholarship in the humanities; 2) initiate and support research and programs to strengthen the research potential of the United States in the humanities . . . ; (3) award fellowships and grants to institutions or individuals for training and workshops in the humanities . . . ; (4) foster the interchange of information in the humanities; (5) foster, through grants or other arrangements with groups, public understanding and appreciation of the humanities; and (6) support the publication of scholarly works in the humanities.
This was an ambitious directive, to be sure. But one aspect proved especially challenging: fostering "public understanding and appreciation of the humanities." Indeed, in an early report, NEH's first chair Barnaby Keeney wrote that "a good deal of time has been given, within the Endowment and within the National Council on the Humanities, to the question of exactly how it [reaching the general public] should be done." Keeney's concern was legitimate. During NEH's earliest years, the large majority of the agency's funding went toward supporting research. Members of Congress soon expressed concern that, while the agency effectively supported the academic community, it was not fulfilling its charge to serve the American public.
NEH considered several approaches to addressing this challenge, ultimately deciding that state-based, nonprofit citizen committees afforded the best opportunity for promoting the humanities at the grassroots level. Thus, Humanities Texas—and our fellow state humanities councils—were born.
In 1972, four Texans—Thomas B. Brewer, vice chancellor of Texas Christian University; Levi A. Olin, Dallas rabbi and former member of The University of Texas System Board of Regents; Emmett Field, vice president for academic affairs at the University of Houston; and David M. Vigness, chairman of the history department at Texas Tech University—attended a two-day conference in Washington, DC, to be introduced to NEH's new state humanities program. The group then returned to Texas to discuss forming such an organization in the state. Under Brewer's leadership, the group applied for and received a $20,000 planning grant from the NEH, effective January 1, 1973, to establish an organization called the Texas Committee for the Humanities (TCH).
The TCH next conducted a series of regional conferences to determine how the council could best approach its work in Texas and to establish local connections and networks throughout the state. Since the NEH required all state humanities organizations to focus on the relationship between the humanities and public policy issues, the nascent organization was soon renamed the Texas Committee for the Humanities and Public Policy. On June 15, 1973, the Committee requested funds from NEH to support administration, program development, and grants to local projects. A $170,000, eighteen-month grant was approved, effective October 1, 1973. The University of Texas at Arlington provided the organization with office space on its campus. The Committee's board named Sandra L. Myres, a member of the UT Arlington history faculty, as the inaugural director.
Much of the Committee's early work reflects this emphasis on bringing the insights of the humanities to bear on questions of public policy. In the mid-seventies, for example, the Committee awarded grants to projects with titles such as "Municipal Government and Its Responsiveness to Individual Needs" (1974), "Public School Athletics and Public Policy" (1975), "Public Policy Issues in Improving the Quality of Life for Senior Citizens" (1975), and "We the People, We the Family" (1976).
In 1976, after Congress passed legislation reauthorizing the arts and humanities endowments, state councils were encouraged to move beyond this focus on public policy to broader programs that reflected the needs and interests of each individual state. In recognition of this shift, the Texas council dropped "Public Policy" from its name in 1978. Since then, we have developed and supported thousands of projects in traditional humanities fields including U.S. and Texas history, literary studies, philosophy, archaeology, anthropology, comparative religion, ethics, and art history.
Sandra Myres served as the organization's executive director until 1975, when Jim Veninga was appointed in her place. Under Veninga's direction, the organization moved to Austin in June 1980 to be closer to state government and other statewide organizations.
Jim Veninga devoted most of his professional career to what is now Humanities Texas. He became a national leader for the public humanities, and, during his tenure, the Texas council supported a number of visionary initiatives, including the Texas Women's History Project, a wide-reaching examination of the future of education in Texas, and a groundbreaking program that explored the meaning of the Vietnam War.
To provide a broader perspective on our organization's early years, we're resurfacing a conversation with Veninga that appeared in our January 2013 newsletter. Veninga discusses the emergence of the state councils; the critical role of the humanities, NEH, and the state councils in civic life; and the evolving focus of the Texas council during his tenure.
In 2012, Jim Veninga discussed the evolution of his career in the humanities in a series of oral history interviews, excerpted in the newsletter article "A Conversation with Jim Veninga."
"We know how important, as we move closer to the twenty-first century, the achievement of this goal [of a society of lifelong learners] is to the future of self-governance, to the health of American democracy, to the preservation of freedom, to free institutions. Learning must not stop at the sixth grade, or the twelfth grade, or with a BA, or a PhD degree. Increasingly we will need citizens in touch with history and culture, knowledgeable of the world around them, at home with ideas, able to understand the increasingly difficult choices that we are required to make as individuals and as a nation, and eager to engage their fellow citizens in discussion of those choices. The alternative to this vision of a learning society is a state and a nation of isolated and devalued individuals forced to endure repeated clashes of opinions and convictions, not open to nor tolerant of the dignity and freedom of others, and unable to work toward shared values and commonly held goals in a thinking society. There is no need for that to happen. We have books and scholars. We have citizens with ideas. We have energetic institutions committed to public programming. We have an expanding core of individuals eager to work for the public good. We have a little bit of money and very much good will. So now is the time for us to link arms and march forward."
—Jim Veninga, triennial report submitted to NEH in 1995.