US Presidents and the Arts: A Vision for the Nation
When was the last time you heard an American president talk about the arts, particularly their importance in our society overall? Back on February 18, 1784, in a letter to a local bookseller in Alexandria, Virginia, the country’s first president George Washington wrote that “to encourage literature and the arts is a duty which every good citizen owes to his country.” Did other presidents follow his advice over the next 230 years?
The answer is yes and here are 7 ways that U.S. presidents have made contributions to the artistic health of the country.
FDR and the WPA. The first and only time specialized artists, from painters to musicians to writers, were directly employed by the U.S. government was under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. For in 1935 during the Great Depression, FDR signed into law the WPA or Works Progress Administration which provided jobs in the areas of visual art, music, drama, and writing. As a consequence, thousands of works of art were produced, including large-extent murals that nevertheless decorate post offices, court houses, and schools today. Plays and concerts were also performed in front of millions of Americans and writers compiled historical guides for every state. Among the participants in the program were Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Jacob Lawrence, John Steinbeck, Studs Terkel and countless others. The WPA program for the arts ended during World War II.
TEDDY ROOSEVELT AND THE NATIONAL ART MUSEUM MALL. In 2014 the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. has one of the largest complexes of art museums in the world. But in 1906, negotiations for establishing the Smithsonian’s first art museum, the Freer Gallery, had broken down. Detroit millionaire Charles Lang Freer and the regents of the SI were unable to agree on how his priceless gift of Asian and American art should be displayed. Only the intervention of then President Theodore Roosevelt renewed talks guaranteeing the formation of the Freer Gallery of Art. Thanks to Roosevelt’s foresight, visitors can now visit not only the Freer (with its present collection of some 26,000 objects), but 5 other art museums located on or near the National Mall.
JOHN F. KENNEDY: A VISION FOR THE NATION. When 43 year old John F. Kennedy invited poet Robert Frost to speak at his inauguration in January 1961, it signaled the start of a new era in the arts. He and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy used the White House as a national showcase, especially for concerts and dances in addition as Mrs. Kennedy’s renovation of the building itself. The Kennedys, too, were instrumental in bringing the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa, for public exhibition in both New York City and Washington, D.C. in 1963, attracting a combined total of almost 2 million visitors. Kennedy also produced a Special Consultant on the Arts and promoted congressional hearings that ultimately led to the formation of the National Endowment for the Arts after his death.
LYNDON JOHNSON AND THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE ARTS. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation establishing the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent federal agency dedicated to funding artistic projects and initiatives throughout the United States. Now, approaching its fifth decade, the NEA has survived threats of budget cuts and already elimination. At the present, individual artists and cultural organizations are eligible for grants; an important focus of the agency is promoting art education. In addition, the Highway Beautification Act was passed during Johnson’s term. Its major advocate was the President’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson, who had campaigned for enhancing the nation’s interstate and dominant roadways.
THOMAS JEFFERSON: MASTER ARCHITECT. Did you know that Thomas Jefferson submitted his own architectural plan for the U.S. Capitol building? Although it wasn’t accepted, the third U.S. president did ultimately realize his artistic ambitions with his inventive designs for his home at Monticello and the campus of the University of Virgina (its building style and layout have been adopted by numerous schools and universities across the country).
THE ADAMS ARTS LEGACY. Founding father and second president John Adams once expected that he must study politics and war, so that his sons could study mathematics and philosophy, and his grandsons, in turn, might study painting, poetry, music, and architecture, and other art forms. Although his son and sixth president John Quincy Adams, followed his father’s profession, he did propose the promotion of the arts and sciences by a national university during his own administration. While two generations later Henry Adams did truly become an art historian and writer, almost fulfilling his great grandfather’s prophesy.
ARTISTS-IN-CHIEF. Finally, at the minimum four U.S. chief executives have joined the ranks of amateur artists including two popular wartime generals, Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Grant for example, studied art when he attended West Point, while Eisenhower began painting as a hobby in his fifties. Most recent presidential artists are President Jimmy Carter who often sells his work for charitable causes and President George W. Bush, known especially for his portraits of dogs.