President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
We live in a time when the arts are threatened from every direction, when arts education is relegated to an extra for only a few, privileged children, when the economic environment forces reductions in programming and access, when much of the press has given up on covering the arts at all and when naïve cries of elitism threaten the work of those thousands of arts organizations bringing inspiration, education, entertainment and role models to our least advantaged citizens. And we live at a time when our political leaders seem frightened to do any more than give bland verbal support for the arts.
How refreshing it is to think back to an era when we had a First Family who truly relished the arts at their highest level of accomplishment. The Kennedys brought the great Spanish cellist Pablo Casals to the White House for a chamber music recital that made front page news. They invited Grace Bumbry, the spectacular African American opera singer, to perform there as well.
The Kennedys produced a series of performances “For Young People By Young People” that gave young performers a chance to shine and young audiences the inspiration to try the arts themselves.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis made friends with those in the world of music, painting, dance and theater. Poets, writers and great thinkers were courted and feted. Her friendships with great Americans like Leonard Bernstein and Robert Frost are well chronicled, and her involvement with American Ballet Theatre is legendary. Her children carried on this great tradition of involvement and support for the arts. Caroline Kennedy is, to this day, the Honorary Chairman of ABT.
Inclusivity was key, but so were standards of excellence and elegance. When the nation watched these performances unfold at the White House — and they did — they knew they were seeing something special. They also came to believe that the White House was a special place, and that political leaders must also be leaders of thought. We aspired to the finest things in life, not simply the most expensive.
Presidents before and since have been arts supporters. Jimmy Carter was the first sitting President to attend the Metropolitan Opera, and President Obama has hosted several arts events at the White House.
But no president, apart from President Kennedy, cited accomplishment in the arts as one of the highest aspirations of a nation.