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WHERE THE ARTS COME ALIVE!

Meet the Ruglands

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When you ask founding Board Member Walt Rugland what inspired him to help with the early fundraising of the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center his answer is humble.

“Well, I was assigned it,” he says with a chuckle.

Walt was COO at Aid Association for Lutherans (AAL), now Thrivent Financial, when he was tasked with joining the city task force to think about a performing arts center in Appleton.

“My view at the time was AAL needed to give a major gift to the community to celebrate all that the community had done to nurture the organization,” Walt remembered. “I suggested we should really think about an initial gift for a performing arts center being that gift.”

He went on to say how a commitment of 25 percent of the estimated cost felt like the right number and that without a major donation to kick off the project, the committee was afraid they wouldn’t be able to get it past the stage of being talked about.  As the project matured, the AAL percentage become less, but the commitment became stronger. 

Walt continued with the history of meetings and names of major players like John Gilbert, John Bergstrom, Oscar Boldt and so many more who were in the initial discussions pushing each other, and the community around them, to get behind what had only been an idea.

 “I think the significant part of the AAL commitment was AAL not only gave 8 million but provided all the necessary legwork to accomplish it. There wasn’t any argument about the site (it was in the city plan) or about when it needed to be done by (November 2002). We may still be talking about it if we hadn’t put those criteria on it because there was resistance from many quarters. Everybody had a better idea.”

“Including me,” Milly added. “Sometimes it was stressful but it was also exciting to have a bunch of optimistic business people saying ‘Oh, we can do it.’ The entire community seemed to think it couldn’t be done. I was a doubter myself…Everyone thought this site won’t work – this is nuts. Or it’s too much money. Who needs it if there’s something in Green Bay. Is it going to destroy local arts – plus everybody just thought they couldn’t make it happen. It was fun to watch the objections disappear.”

One of the first pieces to get sorted out was developing the Center’s mission.

“We were told when we first started working on the project…you need to define a mission. That was a helpful statement,” Walt recalled. “The gathering place was the key word. I can still remember we had underlined different words but the notion of looking at this building as a gathering place instead of a theater was really significant and the architects even took that to heart and really thought about it when building – that’s why you have all the windows. You want people to walk by and know that things are happening here.”

Since then, being a gathering place has remained a central part of the Center’s mission and together, the Ruglands have enjoyed watching it grow.

When Walt was helping the Center in its early days, he met with staff to propose getting high schools more involved at the community’s new performing arts center.

“I suggested we have a festival of high school music and bring in a top-notch conductor. I talked to Luther College and their pretty well known conductor agreed to come and bring his number two with him. The goal was to get these conductors into the high schools and then have a massive group – and we still do that,” Walt said with a proud Milly adding “And it made a statement about the education component of the Center.”

Walt said the Center’s staff took the idea and ran with it and he enjoys seeing the Fox Cities Choral Music Festival when he can. For Milly, her favorite part has been watching as the arts grow in the community.

“We’ve gone to the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra concerts multiple times when it has appeared sold out,” Milly said. “Watching the attendance grow has thrilled me.”

The couple has continued to support the Center as Annual Partners, they said, because they understand the important role Annual Partners play in supporting mission-based programming that ticket costs don’t cover.

“You can’t run this place on just the shows and tickets,” Milly said. “It’s vital to maintain the ability to keep the mission going.”

“You should be an Annual Partner because there is a quality of life component to this place that needs to be supported by the beneficiaries of it. This place is more than tickets. You can see the kids coming in and out. The fact that you can get home in 20 or 30 minutes after a show. There’s value here besides tickets,” Walt added.

“It’s a philanthropy gift and everybody could give a nickel but people that can give more should give more.”
And it’s more than just the entertainment, Walt said. After all, look at how far the Center has come in just 15 years.

“The Fox Cities P.A.C. has opened many doors and minds as to what the Fox Cities area is and what is can be,” Walt said. “It’s hard to explain what it was like here 20 years ago.”

“The downtown is different. The kids education is different,” Milly added. “You don’t even need all of these details, people can fill in their own blanks.”
 
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