FEBRUARY 2021 Magazine - Page 8

textiles for park lodges. Performing artists brought plays and concerts and puppet shows to areas of the country that never had seen such things before, while writers and photographers documented the stories of common Americans who had lived through enslavement in the antebellum South or the ravages of the Dust Bowl.

All of these efforts helped to share and expand Americans’ views – of their country, their fellow citizens, and their capacity for survival and growth. But the program ended in 1943 as the United States became embroiled in World War II.

Succeeding presidents supported the arts personally – President Harry Truman was his daughter Margaret’s biggest fan as she pursued a singing career. And during his two terms as President, Dwight D. Eisenhower liked to paint for 10 minutes before lunch every day.

Also, it was during Eisenhower’s time in office that Congress authorized funding for the construction of a national arts center in Washington D.C.

But when John F. Kennedy became President, his public demonstrations of appreciation for the arts – beginning with his invitation to Robert Frost to recite a poem at his inauguration, and cemented with his hosting of a rare performance by cellist Pablo Casals at the White House – signaled the possibility that the arts would once again be elevated in the national discourse.

Before that could come to meaningful fruition in terms of new laws or funding sources, however, Kennedy’s life and work were cut short by an assassin’s bullet. The aforementioned national arts center was named the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to honor his memory.

But it was Kennedy’s Vice President and successor to the Presidency, Lyndon B. Johnson, who took the next really bold steps in advancing the nation’s commitment to culture. Shortly after being sworn in as President, he brought a full-time arts advisor onto his staff, the first in American history. He also inserted an arts plank into the Democratic Platform for the 1964 presidential campaign.

And when Johnson won his race against Barry Goldwater, he marshaled dozens of cultural stars (among them Gregory Peck, Agnes DeMille, Ralph Ellison, Minoru Yamasaki and Leonard Bernstein) to testify before Congress in support of the creation of a National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities. LBJ, meanwhile, conducted some forceful lobbying over the phone from the Oval Office.

By late September 1965, Congress passed the legislation he had asked for, and Johnson signed the bill into law in a Rose Garden ceremony. And so the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities were born.

In remarks he made that day, the President talked about art as the vehicle for expressing a nation’s inner vision, adding – “And where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Johnson promised that this new legislation would create a national level theater, opera company and ballet company, as well as an American film institute. He said there would be funding to commission new musical and theatrical works and create more artist residencies in schools and universities.

But perhaps most importantly, he stressed, “It is in the neighborhoods of each community that a nation’s art is born. In countless American towns there live thousands of obscure and unknown talents.

“What this bill really does is to bring active support to this great national asset.”

President Lyndon Johnson greets dancer/choreographer Agnes DeMille