Celebrating 150 Years of the Academy | wisconsinacademy.org
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Celebrating 150 Years of the Academy

Imagine what it was like on that February afternoon in 1870, when hundreds of people crowded into Wisconsin’s State Agricultural Hall for the convention to organize the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters. Wisconsin was a young state, and the nation was imagining a brighter future in the wake of the Civil War. Possibility was in the air.

In his spirited call to meeting, Wisconsin educator and statesman John Wesley Hoyt urged his fellow citizens to establish an academy of their own—and not just for science, but also for the arts and letters. Hoyt declared that this new organization would “contribute to the social progress of the state” by “awaken[ing] a scientific spirit in all inquiring minds, and thus lead to a more fruitful intellectual activity among the people at large and to a wider diffusion of useful knowledge.” He also asserted this academy “would associate artists of every class [and] bring together men”—yes, only men at the beginning—“of letters and promote advancement … of the literary and aesthetic culture of the people.”

Less than a month later, on March 16, the state legislature approved the charter for the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters. We have been committed to this ambitious form of “social progress of the state” ever since.

Progress is rarely linear, and it often leaps forward at catalytic moments. But the capacity to make these leaps comes from deep and often behind-the-scenes investments in research, collaboration, and creative risk-taking that has ideas primed and ready to go when the tectonic plates of science, culture, or politics suddenly shift.

Over the course of our venerable history, Academy leaders have embraced these deep-yet-almost-invisible investments with the confidence that they fuel the knowledge and creativity it takes to make a state, and a people, better. And, as Hoyt put it, “to insure Wisconsin an advanced position among the most enlightened communities of the world.” But Hoyt wasn’t talking about competition—he was talking about Wisconsin as a global leader.

As we stand on the threshold of our next 150 years, the Academy remains committed to fostering deep investments in Wisconsin ideas that lead to breakthroughs across the sciences, arts, and letters—progress—for Wisconsin and the world. Wisconsin was, is, and should continue to be known as a place that provides fertile ground for fresh and powerful ideas that move the world forward. 

Looking ahead, I’m excited about the myriad ways the Academy can serve as a catalyst for ideas of the future. Thank you to our many members, donors, leaders, artists, writers, scientists, partners, and friends who have brought us forward through the decades into this new era. Together, we are making a brighter future inspired by Wisconsin ideas—and that’s something to celebrate!

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Jane Elder recently retired from her position as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Academy. She brought to the Wisconsin Academy a strong background in public policy leadership, nonprofit management, and involvement in Wisconsin arts.

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