The Culture of Ag

CALS has a unique legacy of celebrating the arts and humanities in agriculture. An exploration that formally started during the Depression is enjoying renewed vigor in rural arts celebration today.

The last thing you’d expect to see inside a university’s newly renovated, state-of-the-art biochemistry center is a 1940s Regionalist masterpiece celebrating rural life. Ditto for a rotating exhibition of paintings by contemporary rural artists ringing the grand vestibule of Agricultural Hall, seat of the University of Wisconsin–Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

CALS’ reputation as a scientific innovator is well established. Less heralded, and unique among agricultural colleges, is that CALS throughout its history has been a cultural innovator as well, taking pains to illuminate the ways in which the sciences and the arts intersect—and why each way of knowing the world is so important to the other.

John Steuart Curry’s 1942 mural in the Biochemistry Building offers a prime example. The Social Benefits of Biochemical Research powerfully illustrates the benefits made possible by vitamin discoveries and applications. On the left side of the main panel, the artist depicts a sickly hog and wan children, including a boy whose bowed legs are a sign of rickets. At the center and right, we see hale and hearty kids, adults and livestock. Men pictured at the back of the mural are some of CALS’ legendary figures in vitamin research, including Harry Steenbock, who eradicated rickets by discovering how to increase vitamin D content in foods.

Far from being accidental or casual, Curry’s decade-long association with the College of Agriculture was part of a deliberate aim to meld culture with agriculture. From 1936 until his death in 1946, Curry was artist-in-residence at UW in the first such arrangement at any American university—and his residency was in the College of Agriculture.

While artist-in-residence programs are now common at schools and universities across the country (and even in some businesses, such as Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel), they were a novel concept in Depression-era America.

Yet Curry’s residency is just one facet of CALS’ longstanding interconnections with arts and culture, both historically and today. Such connections highlight the importance of agriculture for students and the general public. They also provide important pathways for rural people to express themselves and celebrate their livelihoods and communities.

Spotlighting the cultural side of agriculture is a deep part of Wisconsin’s heritage. And that tradition still burns brightly through new initiatives of which many CALS faculty, alumni and students are a part.