Remarks at a Tribute to Andrew W. Mellon at the National Gallery of Art

January 27, 1983

Trustees of the National Gallery, Mr. Chief Justice, members of the Cabinet, Members of Congress, distinguished guests:

I will not speak as long as I did in the State of the Union address. [Laughter]

Nancy and I are pleased to be here to honor Andrew Mellon and to celebrate another milestone in the realizaton of his vision of a national gallery of art -- an American gallery, created for the enrichment of all the people of the United States and second to none in its commitment to excellence.

Tonight we inaugurate some 40,000 square feet of new gallery space. It's a great privilege for me to share in this. President Roosevelt accepted the original gifts of the west wing -- or the West Building, and Mr. Mellon's collection in 1941. And President Carter accepted the East Building in 1978. It's taken 42 years, but now a Republican has a chance to share in the fun. [Laughter]

The man we honor tonight, Andrew Mellon, contributed so much -- as a captain of finance and industry, as a highly principled public servant, and -- which is the reason we remember him this evening -- as an individual whose dedication to the arts still enriches the people of the United States. In business, he contributed to the great industrial expansion that provided the American people with the bounty of freedom and wealth the world had never known. His personal commitment to the arts added a further dimension of meaning and beauty to the liberty in which he believed so deeply.

Mr. Mellon's philanthropy was not -- as some would have us believe -- a rare exception. It was and is a vital part of the American character. From our earliest days, the arts in America have depended on this generosity and, yes, on the appreciation of the cultural underpinnings of our society. Our country has been blessed with great patrons like Andrew Mellon, but also with millions of less wealthy Americans who give what they can in order to elevate the cultural level of their community and of their country.

We can all be proud that in 1981, the most recent figures available, Americans contributed a recordbreaking $3.35 billion to cultural institutions and organizations. It represents an increase of 13.2 percent from the year before.

Americans, more than any other people, have always understood the relationship between personal freedom and individual responsibility, something which is especially true in the arts. However, we have enjoyed our cultural freedom for so long that sometimes some of us may take it for granted.

A group of young Americans were touring Latvia a few years ago. They were given an opportunity to visit with a local artist. And this painter, careful with her words because she was speaking through a government interpreter, suggested that the artist fared better under communism because the system demanded quality before an artist's work could be shown, thus preventing an undeveloped artist from ruining his or her reputation. This painter, for example, said she had worked hard and was soon to be permitted a showing in Moscow. And she pulled out some examples of her work. And, as is so often the case with Socialist realism, her work lacked a certain personality and feeling.

Before the young Americans could leave, however, this artist insisted that they see some of the examples of her earlier work, before her skills had matured enough for a showing in Moscow. And she removed from her closet some photographs of her earlier paintings, paintings that were alive with expression, reflecting warmth and vitality. She had given those young Americans a message without ever saying a negative word about artistic freedom under totalitarianism.

The National Gallery, as was Mr. Mellon's wish, has gone to great lengths to prevent political interference with its decisions. We can all be grateful that God provided this country with leaders who loved culture and also loved liberty, as exemplified by Andrew Mellon. And tonight I would like to take an opportunity to thank his son, Paul Mellon, for all he's doing for the arts and for what he has done for the National Gallery.

I understand that at today's meeting the trustees accepted the extraordinary gift of paintings, sculpture, and graphic art that we've seen, from Paul Mellon. Well, I, too, am proud to accept this gift on behalf of the people of the United States.

Paul, it would be inappropriate to say that you're following in your father's footsteps, because you're leaving some mighty big footprints of your own. Of course, one would expect nothing less from an old horse cavalryman like yourself. And you can take that from an old horse cavalryman himself. [Laughter]

Seriously, though, the work that you're doing, like the generous contributions of so many here tonight, is something for which all of you can be rightfully proud.

Andrew Mellon's original gifts, his collection and the funds for the gallery, were made on the condition that the gallery would not bear his name, but the name of the Nation instead. He knew well that a country is as refined and decent as its people. Our cultural future, as it should be, is not in the hands of a minister or commissar of arts but, instead, is dependent on farsighted men and women who are dedicated to the cultural betterment of America -- people who yearn to share their love of art with their fellow citizens and take it upon themselves to do what is necessary for cultural and artistic advancement.

Early in our Republic, our country was often referred to as a new Athens. Many basic ideals of democracy can be traced back to that ancient city-state, a city with elections and an open marketplace called an agora; a city, a gathering center for mankind where intellectual and artistic creativity reached new heights -- left artistic treasures that speak to us through the ages. Today we should all be grateful to citizens like Andrew Mellon who left, as did the Founding Fathers, a legacy like that of Athens which will speak to mankind for a thousand years.

I don't know that it was Athens, but I do know that there was a Greek city-state back in that time that had a custom that has intrigued me very much. When a citizen had a proposal to make for a government program, he made it standing on a chair with a noose around his neck. [Laughter] And if the people liked his proposal, they removed the noose; if they didn't, they kicked the chair. [Laughter] I don't suppose we could institute that. [Laughter] We'll stick with the arts and the other democratic ideals.

But I thank you for letting me be a part, and Nancy be a part, of your efforts in behalf of the National Gallery of Art. Thank you all, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 10:32 p.m. in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art.