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For art's sake
Lynne Eich retires from Dane County Cultural Affairs after 30 years of funding triumphs
'We've gone so far beyond what any of us ever dreamed.'
'We've gone so far beyond what any of us ever dreamed.'

It is, she says, time to retire. Time for fresh ideas and new initiatives. 'I'm a grandmother now,' says Lynne Watrous Eich, 'and I thought we needed someone younger.'

But contemporary grandmothers are not those of generations past. Since the formal announcement last November that she would step down on April 13 after 30 years as director of the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission, her admirers ' both artists and audiences ' have struggled to adjust to the news. Her manner suggests a public servant in the prime of life at mid-career. Someone whose quiet, steady work across three decades has turned her agency's initial $5,000 stake into almost $500,000 per year for arts and history grants.

When you add up all the commission's tangible and intangible accomplishments, it becomes difficult to think of any other individual in the last three decades whose contributions toward our quality of life approach Eich's.

She is too self-effacing to be comfortable with such accolades. 'My job is to be low-key and shine the light on others,' she says over coffee at Espresso Royale. In accepting the Wisconsin Foundation for the Arts' first-ever Governor's Award for lifetime achievement in arts administration late last year, Eich called arts administrators 'the left brains in a right-brain industry,' people who find reward in working 'away from the limelight' on behalf of the arts and its audiences. In keeping with her modest tendencies, she likened her own niche to that of a utility infielder 'who covers all of the bases most of the time.'

Looking back at her career, Eich, 65, does allow herself gratification at what the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission has accomplished: 'We've gone so far beyond what any of us ever dreamed.'

The commission's birth suggested humble prospects. 'We started with this $5,000 left over from the county's bicentennial committee,' Eich remembers.

Office space and furnishings were spare. 'My first day on the job, I had no office,' Eich recalls. For the first six weeks, she used an extra desk in the corporation counsel's office. 'Then I found a closet around the corner from the county coroner.'

She would wait four years for more suitable quarters. In 1981, when Jonathan Barry assumed office as Dane County executive, 'he took one look at where I was and said, 'Give me four weeks and I'll get you an office,'' she remembers. He kept his word.

Eich also encountered early skepticism regarding the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission's viability. 'I had to talk to the comptroller about my 1978 budget,' she recalls, 'and he said, 'Oh, you think you're going to be around for this?''

But the commission was diligent in its work, and Eich in hers. 'The first years weren't easy ones,' she says now, 'but I think we proved ourselves, and after the third year we were chugging along.'

The commission's budget crept up in small increments. Public support grew, and so did backing from the Dane County Board of Supervisors. The commission started to thrive. So did Eich.

She had inherited her advocacy for the arts from her father, James Watrous (1908-1999). He was the UW-Madison's Hagen professor of art history, the driving force for creating the Elvehjem Museum of Art, an artist who painted the murals in the Memorial Union's Paul Bunyan Room, and the author of The Craft of Old-Master Drawings and other seminal volumes.

Her father's diplomatic approach to arts advocacy imprinted itself on Eich. But it didn't hurt that she came to find herself in an uncommon situation: the ideal job. She mentions a recent study in which four out of five people were dissatisfied with their work. She counts herself among the one in five. 'I never found another job I'd rather have,' she says.

Were there days when the job was such a good fit that she would stop to pinch herself? 'Daily,' she says. 'Our little program is a creative place to work. It's been such a privilege.'

The privilege was all the more rare because the commission is a county agency. This is not the norm, Eich points out. Most public arts entities operate at the municipal or state level.

Indeed, one of her tenure's most impressive accomplishments may be her record of converting class after class of new Dane County supervisors to the commission's cause, at two-year intervals. Many came into office wary of the need for the county to administer cultural affairs. Eich proved herself skilled at reasoning with all but the most uncompromising philistine.

'I think having three county board members on our commission is helpful,' she says, once again delegating credit. They have served as ambassadors to the board itself, she explains.

Eich's tenure spans 15 Dane County boards of supervisors and the administrations of five Dane County executives, from George Reinke to Kathleen Falk by way of Jonathan Barry, Rod Matthews and Rick Phelps. 'The fact that we've been placed in the county executive's office is important,' she says. It affords the commission a stature that a closet around the corner from the county coroner's office does not.

'I don't think people view us as part of a bureaucracy,' she adds. She attributes this, in part, to the success of publications like desktop easel calendars, Everybody's Ethnic: A Dane County Alphabet, Settlers of Dane County, Back to Beginnings: The Early Days of Dane County and annual posters showcasing works by Dane County artists. (A retrospective of the complete poster series continues through March 14 at the Overture Center.)

'They see our products and identify us with those signature items,' Eich says. Enjoying that level of public support, she adds, is invaluable.

The commission's work is not all light breezes and sunny days. 'We've really tried hard,' says Eich, 'to meet the trust and confidence of not only the arts community but also our donors and the public.' Sustaining that trust and confidence is a Sisyphean task.

To accomplish it, says Eich, the commission has established strong policies and clear, defensible grant criteria.

Scott Foss, who now serves on the commission and earlier served on its arts-grant advisory panel, says that Eich has been careful to impress on commissioners and panelists 'that no application is too small, no group is too small, no amount of money is too insignificant to be considered with care. She takes that so seriously.'

Foss remembers receiving his first stack of 50 or 60 applications perhaps 10 years ago, poring over requests from the Elvehjem and the Madison Art Center but also an artist seeking support for an exhibition at Mother Fool's Coffeehouse. He strove to give equal weight to each.

'I remember going home after that first meeting,' he says, 'thinking what an education that was.' The process, he says, is so well established and thorough that complaints are rare.

Foss has also been impressed by the lengths to which Eich will go to help grant applicants through the process.

Danielle Dresden and Donna Peckett, principals in Tapit/new works, have landed some 40 grants from the commission in the last 20 years, amounting to about $90,000. But Tapit has also struck out a number of times. Peckett observes that when an application fails, 'Lynne Eich has the courage and foresight to call up and say, 'I'm sorry you didn't get this grant,'' and offer to work with candidates to improve their application for the next grant cycle.

'We talk to Lynne fairly frequently,' she adds, 'and I love when she calls up, because she says, 'Tapit? This is Culture.''

Dresden notes that Eich and the commission have been vital to the growth of Tapit and other arts organizations across Dane County. Peckett adds that their support has allowed Tapit to extend both its artistic and educational ambitions.

Dresden observes that the commission's own growth is all the more remarkable in contrast to the struggles of other arts agencies across the country. 'Lynne Eich is always fair and gracious to all, and she will spend as much time with a 20-something newbie, as I was, as she will with the symphony.'

You hear this repeated almost without fail when you talk to people about Eich. Stephen Fleischman, director of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, ascribes her effectiveness, at least in part, to poise and elegance.

He calls her retirement 'a bittersweet occasion for the arts community. It's sweet because we know Lynne Eich deserves a retirement as much as anyone in this community. But she's going to leave an enormous void.'

During her tenure as its first and only director, Fleischman continues, 'the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission has really been with the museum at every aspect of its evolution, from the old Montgomery Ward building to the Civic Center to the Overture Center.' He says that the commission's support has enabled the museum to take risks it might not otherwise have been able to take.

Eich has encouraged the commission to be geographically egalitarian. 'Every year,' she says, 'we get out a big county map and put little stickers where we've been in the previous year.' The little stickers show up all over the map.

In the last grant cycle alone, the commission awarded $129,800 to 36 arts and history programs that will reach more than 165,000 residents in more than a dozen Dane County communities, including Belleville, Black Earth, Blue Mounds, Cross Plains, Mazomanie, McFarland, Monona, Oregon and Waunakee. The grant recipients range from the DeForest and Madison school districts to the Stoughton Opera Company, the Verona Area Arts Series and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

This represents only a sampling from one of the commission's three annual grant cycles encompassing arts, history and capital awards bestowed on a competitive basis to nonprofit groups, schools, municipalities and individuals. Juried by an eight-member arts advisory panel and four-member history advisory panel, the grants strive to support a diverse range of exhibitions, performances, festivals, arts-in-schools residencies and publications. This year's grants budget comes to $485,000. In 30 years, the commission has awarded some $5.7 million in total grants at increments ranging from the low three figures to the high four. Most awards are in the low four figures.

These are impressive numbers, but they multiply when you calculate that, on average, every dollar in Dane County Cultural Affairs grant money leverages $10 in matching funds and donations.

And grants represent only the most quantifiable portion of the commission's work. Less tangible but no less significant are its efforts to serve as a cultural resource for constituents. As the county's cultural affairs director for 30 years, Eich is on a first-name basis with countless artists, arts presenters and members of their audiences. Bringing these parties together to their mutual advantage is central to her stewardship of the commission.

Approaching the transition to her successor ' at present the subject of a nationwide search ' Eich says, 'I'm hopeful that they can continue some of the things that we've started, such as the grants program and the partnership model we've set up with private donors.'

But she also perceives opportunities for her successor to pursue growth, to find new ways of serving the commission's rural constituents, to facilitate collaborations between area arts organizations.

If she was to bestow any advice on her successor, she says, it would be this: 'Think big picture.' Eich pauses, ponders. 'Never forget that you're the public's servant and everybody counts ' everybody's important. Have fun with it.'

What advice might she give herself, if she could reverse the clock and speak face-to-face with herself circa 1976, when she landed the job from which she is now about to retire?

Eich is pensive for a moment. 'I'd say stop worrying so much.' She describes the worries of her tenure as 'a healthy paranoia,' and says the fact that she did worry may have been a prerequisite for what was accomplished during her watch.

But she has also been attentive to the rewards that come with the post. 'There are these little satisfactions that happen all day long,' she says. 'One of the little satisfactions is that people call me up to say thank you.'

There are also the awards bestowed on the commission, such as the one from the American Association of Museums for the children's publication Capital Letters in Dane County Architecture. Eich remembers how thrilled she felt when she learned that they had been picked over the Smithsonian and New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Eich's retirement plans include sleeping later. At present, she notes, 'the alarm goes off at 4:42 every morning and I'm off to take my walk.

'It might be fun to do some writing,' she adds. And she looks forward to more reading time. 'I just finished John Mortimer's latest Rumpole,' she says. She took a copy of Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope on a recent jaunt to Miami with her husband, Judge William Eich, who retired from the District IV Court of Appeals in 2000 but remains active as a lecturer, mediator, arbitrator and legal consultant.

She anticipates more time for friends and family ' between them, the Eichs have four adult daughters from previous marriages ' and for gardening, cooking and adventuring with His Honor. They are enthusiastic hikers, cyclists and travelers, enjoying repeated visits to Europe in recent years. Switzerland is a favorite destination.

Something will be different the next time they come home to Maple Bluff. In an exquisite twist, Lynne Watrous Eich will have become one of the constituents to her legacy as Dane County Cultural Affairs director.

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