James Backas, 77, director of Maryland arts council

June 30, 2003|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

James J. Backas, retired executive director of the Maryland State Arts Council, died Wednesday of a heart attack at his home in Washington. He was 77 and lived in Georgetown.

Mr. Backas served twice in the state post that handles the sometimes thorny administration of government funding of the arts.

He first moved to Maryland as deputy director of the arts council in 1969 and became its director in 1972, serving for four years, said the current deputy director, Susan R. Lear, whom he hired in 1973.

Mr. Backas returned to the director's post in 1986, retiring in 2001. A farewell gala at the Walters Art Museum drew about 400 people from around the country, said Mrs. Lear.

"He was committed to making the arts accessible to citizens in this state," she said. "He's known nationally as the first director to create a system of county arts councils, and second, because he created a folk life program at a state arts agency."

Born in Chicago, Mr. Backas earned a bachelor's degree in music at Michigan State University and a master's degree in musicology from the University of Iowa. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in the arts from Oklahoma City University in 1999.

He began his career in publishing, said his wife of 30 years, the former Margot Wells Schutt. He also wrote about vocal and chamber music for the Washington Star, and in 1969 was managing editor of a scholarly music digest.

Mr. Backas enjoyed playing the clarinet in chamber music groups, she said.

"His real interest in music was classical music," his wife said, "but he felt that folk life and folk artists should be recognized." Thus, he hired the first folklorist.

Mr. Backas left the Maryland arts council post in 1976 to become a special consultant to the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, she said.

He was founding executive director of the American Arts Alliance in Washington. From 1982 to 1984, he directed the Southern Arts Federation in Atlanta, and from 1984 to 1986 headed the Washington, D.C., Commission on the Arts and Humanities. He then returned to the Maryland arts council.

By the time he retired from the director's post, Mrs. Lear said, "Maryland's standing in per-capita spending on the arts went from 24th to seventh."

Mr. Backas wrote articles on arts administration for professional and government publications, and was a lecturer in music history at the Peabody Conservatory.

Among his many other activities, he served on the boards of National Public Radio, the Kennedy Center and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Federation. He was a member of the NEA's Music Advisory Panel, the policy committee for cultural affairs at the Johns Hopkins University and the executive board of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, which honored him with its Gary Young Award in 2001.

Despite his reputation and many accomplishments, Mrs. Lear said, "He was very unassuming, modest. He was so proud of the arts council's accomplishments, but he never acknowledged the pivotal role he played as the guiding light of the agency. He was certainly that."

A memorial service has been scheduled at 11 a.m. July 12 at St. John Episcopal Church, on O Street at Potomac Street in Georgetown.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Backas is survived by a daughter, Amy Elizabeth Backas of San Francisco; and a brother, Paul Backas, and a sister, Margaret Thomason, both of Chicago.

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