Remarks at a Presentation Ceremony for the National Medal of Arts
July 14, 1986
The President. Well, thank you all, and I want to welcome you to the White House and let you know how lucky I feel. It's not often these days that I get to have lunch with my roommate. [Laughter]
But thank you for joining Nancy and me in this, the second annual conferring of the National Medal of Arts. And permit me to thank our Committee on the Arts and Humanities and its Chairman, Andrew Heiskell, for proposing that we create the National Medal of Arts; the Congress for enacting the authorizing legislation; the National Council on the Arts for providing us once again with such a fine list of nominees; and Dan Terra, our Ambassador for Cultural Affairs, for continuing his tradition of holding a State Department reception on this occasion. As we award these 12 medals today, we celebrate 12 rich contributions to American arts; and, in a wider sense, we celebrate American culture itself, the culture of liberty, the culture in which artists are free to be true to themselves.
Nearly two centuries ago, when this grand old house was built, our nation comprised, for the most part, a narrow band of towns and villages hugging the eastern seaboard, a rugged and often unlettered people clinging to the edge of a vast continent. For art, drama, music, and learning Americans looked not to themselves but to Europeans, not to the New World but to the Old. And yet as those rugged people pushed west and gave birth to a great country, they likewise gave birth to a great, distinctive culture. First, American arts took on the twang of the frontier fiddle and the sharp, clean lines of our primitive paintings. And then came the joy of jazz, the sparkle and spectacle of film, the stirring sense of space and light in the work of artists from George Inness to Winslow Homer. In our own time we've seen the rise of superb regional orchestras, ballets, and opera companies, the coming of age of fine museums throughout the country, and the emergence of cities like New York and Los Angeles as art capitals of world importance.
So it is that in matters of culture today, Americans look not so much to the Old World as to the New -- to America itself -- and they do so with pride. Our administration has sought to emphasize these distinctively American aspects of our own culture, and Frank Hodsoll at the National Endowment for the Arts has devoted to this charge all his acumen and skill. Under Frank's leadership, the Endowment has helped to widen State and local support for the arts across the country. And with the support of the Congress, the Endowment is expanding arts programming to television and radio to reach all our people.
And today we have this wonderful event, this moment to pause and appreciate 12 magnificent contributions to the artistic life of our nation. We honor patrons -- those who enable the distinctively American tradition of private support for the arts to flourish. And we honor artists themselves -- their pains, their triumphs, their devotions, all of themselves that they've given to their work and hence to our nation.
And now Nancy is going to help me award the medals.
Mrs. Reagan. Marian Anderson was born in Philadelphia, and at the age of 8 she started singing in choirs. She began her career as a contralto in Europe, and it was Sol Hurok who launched her career in the United States. In 1955 she made her debut with the New York Metropolitan Opera, thereby paving the way for the acceptance of black performers on the concert stage. Arturo Toscanini said that a voice like hers comes only once in a century. Marian Anderson is one of the greatest ladies of opera, and accepting for her today is her cousin, Miss Sandra Grimes.
Frank Capra was born in Palermo, Italy, and came to our country at the age of 6. He served four times as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and three times as president of the Screen Directors Guild. A pioneer of the art of film, he's one of the greatest directors and producers in motion picture history. We'll never forget the classic films ``It Happened One Night,'' ``Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,'' ``Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,'' and ``You Can't Take It With You.'' He's earned five Academy Awards and has been honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Film Institute. Frank Capra is one of the truly great artists of a uniquely American style of filmmaking, and we're pleased to have his son, Tom Capra, accepting on his father's behalf.
Aaron Copland was born of Lithuanian parents in New York. He studied privately with many of the world's greatest musicians, including Nadia Boulanger. He composed his first symphony in 1923 and continued creating masterpieces using truly American folk themes and tunes. We're most familiar with the ``Lincoln Portrait,'' for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in music, and ``Billy the Kid.'' He collaborated with Agnes de Mille on ``Rodeo'' and with Martha Graham on ``Appalachian Spring.'' Aaron Copland is a paramount American composer, and accepting for him is Mrs. Vivian Perlis, his close friend and official biographer.
Willem de Kooning was born in Rotterdam, Holland. He worked his way to our country as a wiper in the engine room of a steamship. Before establishing himself as the great painter that he is, he made signs and window displays; he was a carpenter, furniture designer, muralist, and began his work in abstraction in 1934. As a leader of abstract expressionism, he's influenced all modern painting and is acclaimed by all the world as America's great contribution to modern art. Accepting for him today is his wife, Elaine, who is also a fine painter.
Agnes de Mille was born in New York. Her name is certainly synonymous with the art of dance. As performer and choreographer, she is unforgettable. There's no memory of America that could be complete without the dance of ``Oklahoma,'' ``Carousel,'' ``Brigadoon,'' or the ballet of ``Rodeo,'' ``Fall River Legend,'' or ``The Four Marys.'' Agnes de Mille has written over a dozen books on dance and is also distinguished as a teacher. She's a great artist and a great American.
Eva Le Gallienne was born in London and became a citizen in 1927. In 1921 she starred in her first film, ``Liliom,'' and went on to triumph in ``Camille,'' ``The Master Builder,'' and ``Mary Stuart.'' She also earned a special Tony Award and an Emmy for her outstanding performance in the PBS special ``The Royal Family.'' Eva Le Gallienne founded and directed both the Civic Repertory Theatre in New York and the American Repertory Theatre. In addition to her many talents, she's also a recognized translator of the Scandinavian classics of Ibsen and Hans Christian Andersen. She's a great actress, director, producer, teacher, and author. Accepting for her is Mrs. Anne Kaufman Schneider, a close family friend and colleague.
Alan Lomax was born in Austin, Texas, and is without a doubt the world's most renowned folklorist. He's devoted his life and talent to collecting, compiling, and preserving the folk music of the United States and the world. As director-producer of an original folk music series on CBS Radio in the thirties and forties, he presented all Americans for the first time such then unknowns as Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, and Woody Guthrie. For the past 24 years he's been a President's Scholar at Columbia University, where he has pioneered the study of expressive styles of culture. Recently we've seen his work in the television series ``American Patchwork.'' Mr. Lomax, you've truly enriched our understanding of the cultures of America and the world.
Lewis Mumford was born in Flushing, New York. He's one of our most distinguished historians, literary critics, and commentators on cities and urban design. He's the author of some 31 books and was the recipient of a National Book Award in 1961 for ``The City in History.'' Mr. Mumford has said of the city: ``If it ceases to be a milieu in which people can exist in reasonable contentment, it will be unprofitable to discuss architectural achievements.'' His concern for the whole of the city, as opposed to the single architectural triumph, has taught us how to strive for architecture as ``The Home of Man,'' the title of his highly original book on the philosophy of architecture. Accepting for Mr. Mumford today is his daughter, Mrs. Alison Morss.
Eudora Welty was born in Jackson, Mississippi, and lives there today. Miss Welty is a preeminent American writer, who is most well-known for her books about the South and the Southern family. She's influenced generations of young American writers. In 1941 she published her first book, ``A Curtain of Green,'' and in 1973 she won a Pulitzer Prize for ``The Optimist's Daughter.'' Her work is read widely throughout the country and the world. Miss Welty considers her 1984 autobiographical work, ``One Writer's Beginnings,'' a very significant and recent expression of her thoughts. And we're very honored to present her the National Medal of Arts.
Dominique de Menil began her career as a bold patron of the arts in the 1930's by giving Max Ernst his first one-man show. In 1941 she came to this country from Paris. She's organized exhibitions in New York and Houston as well as in France and Germany and is currently chairman of the Pompidou Art and Cultural Foundation in Paris. She's played a primary role in the renaissance of art institutions in Houston, where a new museum will soon house the world-acclaimed collection of Dominique de Menil and her late husband, John. We're honored to have her here today.
Exxon Corporation began its support of the arts in the forties, and today it's known by millions for its promotion of the arts of television through ``Great Performances'' and ``Live From Lincoln Center.'' A pioneer of the program ``Dance in America,'' Exxon not only brought dance into American living rooms but stimulated live dance performance across America. Exxon has also supported the technology of live broadcasts and simulcasts for audio fidelity. Over 300 new orchestral and chamber works by American composers have been brought to broad audiences by this corporation. Exxon is an outstanding example of enlightened corporate support for the arts, and with us today is Jack Clark, Exxon's senior vice president and director.
Seymour H. Knox was born in Buffalo, New York, where he still lives. As a collector and patron, his contribution to his birthplace is everlasting. Few know that he was a champion polo and squash player in his youth who represented our country in international competitions. However, he will be most remembered for his perceptive eye for the new and daring and as a collector of contemporary art. The Albright-Knox Gallery, under the leadership of Mr. Knox, set major precedents in opening its doors to modern art. And we're pleased to award him the National Medal of Arts.
The President. Well, thank you, Nancy. And thank you all. On behalf of the American people, I commend you, each of you, for crowning our nation's greatness with grace. You have forever set an example for artists and patrons in the years ahead to live up to. I know the Endowment will draw on these examples as it launches its new initiatives in arts education. Certainly the existence of strong music and fine arts curricula is important to keeping the humanities truly humanizing and the liberal arts truly liberating.
So, for all that you've already achieved and for all that your work will continue to mean to our nation in the decades ahead, once again, thank you. God bless you all.
Note: The President spoke at 1:06 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.