Rob Vaughan

Founder of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities

Rob Vaughan

The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH) is now in its 40th year, and may be one of the more unheralded stories in Charlottesville. Since its founding in 1974, VFH has raised over $160,000,000 in sponsoring 40,000 humanities programs serving communities large and small throughout Virginia. It is a national benchmark for cultural foundations, and its programming is experienced by millions nationwide. Rob Vaughan is the founder and director of the foundation. In addition to his work with VFH, Vaughan has been instrumental in the creation of the Center for Nonprofit Excellence, the Festival of the Book, the Ashlawn Opera, and the American Shakespeare Center, among other initiatives.

What is Virginia Foundation for the Humanities?
The foundation’s emphasis is on the development of humanities and culture through education. Our tagline is: “Explore the past, discover the future,” which was actually chosen by hundreds of people through an online vote.

The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities engages people with ideas and applies those to the development of the future, whatever that may be. This year, we are celebrating our 40th year anniversary with “Forty Years Forty stories”, a program celebrating 40 people who have shaped our work and the life of the arts in Virginia and beyond over the past four decades.

If you’re curious to know more about what we do, we are hosting an event on Tuesday, October 2nd, from 5:30 to 7:00PM at the Jefferson School City Center. We’ll have 13 tables set up for our 13 programs. No long talks or presentations – it is a chance to mingle and see where you would like to get involved. We’re also doing a live radio broadcast in Richmond with BackStory by the American History Guys.

How did VFH get started?
Well, I was sitting at home on a very gray, miserable January day in 1974. Edgar Shannon, then President of the University of Virginia, called. He asked if would come in and discuss ideas to engage more people on the humanities in Virginia. We decided that I would work with him for five months. At the end of that period, we had hosted 11 public forums across Virginia from Wise to Norfolk, and we had a plan. I agreed to stay on for three more years. I actually never planned to be here. I was setting out in a completely different direction. But it has been great. I have done everything I wanted to do, and a lot of things that I never anticipated.

We are the largest humanities organization of our kind in the United States by an overwhelming margin. We have been a very entrepreneurial organization. We have been imaginative about what we want to do. And we have been aggressive about engaging people whether they are businesses, nonprofits, or a department at the University.

What was the biggest setback?
The biggest storm was probably in 1990 when we lost State funding. We recovered from it. Interestingly, whenever we’ve had a challenge like that, we’ve always come back stronger. I’m not even sure quite how to account for it. In 1990, for example, we came back and continued to grow rather dramatically.

When did you begin to suspect this could be a success?
I knew it from day one, from the first public forum that we had, which was in Norfolk. This was 1974, back when you had to get the word out in print, and we were impressed by how many people came out to the forum, by how many good ideas they had, and by their enthusiasm for the opportunities that they saw for an organization of this kind. I never doubted that it would be successful.

What has been the biggest positive impact you have observed?
Locally, the biggest impact is probably through the Virginia Festival of the Book. Nationally, it is through radio, our programs like BackStory and Folklife.

Have you founded other businesses or initiatives?  
I was involved in the founding of Ashlawn Opera, the first president of the Center for Nonprofit Excellence, and one of the co-chairs of Create Charlottesville. We provided the initial funding for the American Shakespeare Center, as well as the South Atlantic Humanities Center. I’ve also been part of the creation of national organizations, like the National Humanities Alliance.

How do you define Founding?
The first thing that came to my mind, was that founding is “starting something”. And there’s no doubt about that. But it is never about just one person. It is about pulling people together or getting pulled in. Founding is a collective. Here at VFH, we have one of the finest boards & staffs that exist anywhere. It is a joint enterprise.

What brought you to Charlottesville?
I came to Charlottesville to get an English Ph.D. The exact day was August 20th, 1969. I flew in from Europe and got on a train to come to Charlottesville. The train was sidetracked repeatedly all night long. No one would tell us what it was. It turned out to be Hurricane Camille, which devastated Nelson County.

What’s next?
For over a decade, we have been pursuing digital humanities, developing resources that make art, literature, and history available to people more readily. We have enormous archives – hours of audio, video, and transcripts. For us, the question is, how do we preserve this material? And especially, how do we make it accessible? Digitization is expensive, but we want all citizens to have access to their history and heritage.

Founding Partners