Remarks at a Luncheon for Recipients of the National Medal of Arts

April 23, 1985

The President. Well, thank you, all of you, for being here. It's a great pleasure and an honor for Nancy and me to welcome you to the White House today.

This is an historic occasion. Two years ago, I asked Frank Hodsoll to work with Congress to establish a National Medal of the Arts. And last year Congress passed this legislation, and today we award the first medals.

Before we do, there's some thanks in order to those who worked to make this ceremony possible. I want to thank the Committee on the Arts and Humanities and its Chairman, Andrew Heiskell. Thanks are due also to Senators Robert Stafford, Claiborne Pell, and Paul Simon and Congressman Tom Coleman for their leadership in enacting this legislation. And thanks also to Frank Hodsoll, the National Council of the Arts, and Robert Graham, the artist who designed the medal that we're about to award today. And finally, thanks to Ambassador Terra for that wonderful reception last night. So, thanks to you all.

Now, that was the serious part; now to the fun part. We award today for the first time in our history the National Medal of Arts. The purpose of this medal is to recognize both individuals and groups who have made outstanding contributions to the excellence and availability of the arts in the United States. And through this medal, we recognize both the artist and the patron, both the creator of art and the supporter and encourager of the creator of art. The one needs the other, and the United States needs both.

In recognizing those who create and those who make creation possible, we celebrate freedom. No one realizes the importance of freedom more than the artist, for only in the atmosphere of freedom can the arts flourish. Artists have to be brave; they live in the realm of idea and expression, and their ideas will often be provocative and unusual. Artists stretch the limits of understanding. They express ideas that are sometimes unpopular. In an atmosphere of liberty, artists and patrons are free to think the unthinkable and create the audacious; they are free to make both horrendous mistakes and glorious celebrations. Where there's liberty, art succeeds.

In societies that are not free, art dies. In the totalitarian societies of the world, all art is officially approved. It's the expression not of the soul but of the state. And this state-sanctioned art is usually, as a rule, 99 percent of the time, utterly banal, utterly common. It is lowest common denominator art. In fact, it is not art at all; for art is an expression of creativity, and creativity, as I've said, is born in freedom -- which is not to suggest that great artists who love the truth of art cannot be found in totalitarian states. They're there. Visit a prison, you'll find a number of them. Their garrets are jail cells; their crime is that they refused to put their minds in chains and their souls in solitary. Some artists are forced to the fringes of society. Their work is repressed. These artists may be unpersons, but all of them are heroes.

I know you feel solidarity with them; I know you often think of your brother and sister artists throughout the world. And I hope you continue to pay tribute to them by celebrating freedom in your work and in your lives.

I happen to think, though, that to be an artist is always difficult, even in free societies. Expressing the truth in ideas requires risk -- risk for the artist and risk for the patron. There's no way of knowing in advance how society will receive a new idea. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ``To be great is to be misunderstood.'' It's my hope that this medal today will go some way to telling the great artists here in this room that I think we finally understand you.

We celebrate today the courage, talent, and commitment of the American artists here assembled. We celebrate also the courage, generosity, and far-sightedness of the patrons who have helped bring American art to broad audiences and to preserve great works for the future. We thank all of you for your great work. You've done honor to your nation.

And now, Nancy will help me announce the honorees.

Mrs. Reagan. Hallmark Cards is represented today by Donald Hall, chairman of the board and chief executive officer. Hallmark is an outstanding example of enlightened corporate support of arts, nationally and locally. Hallmark supports ballet, opera, symphonic music, and theater. It's brought the arts to the children of Kansas City and has won 49 Emmies for its production, ``The Hallmark Hall of Fame.'' And last night, it added to its awards by being given the TV Academy's Hall of Fame Award. So, we're just adding our own to that.

Louise Nevelson is a distinguished artist who has made a significant contribution to the art of the 20th century. She's one of a handful of truly original and major artists in America. As a young woman, she studied painting, sculpture, drawing, voice, acting, and modern dance. She developed her personal approach to sculpture by using wood in a unique way to create environments. She's won many awards and honors. And we're happy today to add to those. She says she's used to carrying heavy things. [Laughter]

Jose Ferrer was born in Puerto Rico. He made his debut on the New York stage in 1935, a recipient of three Tony Awards for acting and directing. He's most remembered for performances on film, stage, and on television as Cyrano de Bergerac. Mr. Ferrer has certainly enriched the art of stagecraft. He became the general director of the New York City Theater Company in 1948. And he, too, has won innumerable awards, and his credits are too long to go into. We'd be here all day. Jose.

Georgia O'Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. She worked in her early years as a commercial artist and art supervisor in public schools. For 30 years, she resided in New Mexico painting landscapes, flowers, stones, and skeletons with singular vision. She's turned ordinary objects into fascinating subjects. Her giant-sized, single flower blossoms are recognized around the world. Mrs. O'Keeffe's contribution to painting is now part of the American heritage. She's unable to be with us today, but accepting her medal will be Carter Brown, Director of the National Gallery of Art, who just last week visited her in New Mexico.

Lincoln Kirstein was born in Rochester, New York. Mr. Kirstein devoted his life to the patronage and development of American ballet. It was his dream to start a ballet company. He preserved, and out of his collaboration with George Balanchine grew both the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet. A poet, art critic, and writer on dance, he founded the dance index and the dance archives of the Museum of Modern Art. Mr. Kirstein's imprint on ballet is truly indelible.

Leontyne Price was born in Laurel, Mississippi. And she's one of our greatest opera singers. She made her debut with the San Francisco and Metropolitan Operas in 1961. She's appeared abroad with numerous companies but has spent the major part of her career in the United States doing opera, concerts, recitals, and recordings. Through recordings, Ms. Price's artistry will live on for future generations as one of the greatest opera artists of our time.

Paul Mellon has devoted a lifetime to the enrichment of the arts. He began by accumulating books and paintings on sports, and this eventually extended to other fields. His generosity has supplied a variety of cities with museum structures and collections of European art. All of us are familiar with the magnificent Mellon treasures at the National Gallery of Art, where Mr. Mellon's leadership as Trustee and Chairman of the Board has been extraordinary. Mr. Mellon has truly enriched our Capital and the Nation.

Alice Tully was born in Corning, New York. Ms. Tully is a leading patron of music in New York and throughout the Nation. She's also an artist. And after studying voice in Paris and giving concerts, she gave up performance and devoted herself to philanthropy. Her major gift was the chamber music hall at Lincoln Center, which was dedicated to her in 1969. She's been a board member of Juilliard School of Music and the New School of Music in Philadelphia and helped organize the Chamber Music of Lincoln Center. Ms. Tully's generosity has enhanced the field of music and brought excellent music to millions.

Ralph Ellison is an author and educator whose academic career has included positions at Bard College, UCLA, the University of Chicago, Rutgers, Yale, and New York University. The recipient of many awards, here and abroad, he's best known for his collection of essays and the very distinguished American novel of the postwar period, ``Invisible Man.'' Mr. Ellison's contribution to American society certainly will not be forgotten.

Dorothy Buffum Chandler -- Buffie -- is a great patron and civic leader for the arts in Los Angeles. She conceived and organized the funding of the Los Angeles Music Center, which in 1964 opened the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. More than 35 million people have attended events at this center. Enriching the lives of the people of Los Angeles with theater, classical music, ballet, the Center stimulated the flowering of the performing arts throughout Los Angeles County. Buff Chandler's represented here by her daughter, Camilla Chandler Frost.

Elliott Carter is a distinguished composer who studied at Harvard and later in Paris with the famous Nadia Boulanger. He's taught at St. John's University, Columbia, Yale, Cornell, and the Juilliard School of Music. He's a recipient of numerous awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes for music. Mr. Carter.

Martha Graham was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She's dominated the field of dance as a teacher, performer, choreographer, and director. She's invented new forms and movements and influenced generations. So many of our best dancers owe their beginnings to this great lady. Nearly 60 years later, she is still creating and still giving. Miss Graham.

The President. Well, thank you, Nancy. [Laughter] We're proud to be associated with all of you. And we thank you for what you've done to make America a better place.

It's fitting that these first National Medals of Art are being presented on the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment of the Arts. I congratulate the Endowment and the honorary chairwoman of the 20th Anniversary Committee, who also happens to be my most generous patron, my roommate -- [laughter] -- and also my friend, Charlton Heston, the chairman of the committee.

For two decades now the National Endowment has been doing wonderful work. Most recently, they've been involved in a great endeavor to preserve and protect our rich heritage of film and television and the dance. And they've been building endowments for fine art institutions and helping struggling young artists find an audience. And the members of the Endowment would all be the first to say that none of their great work would have succeeded without the generous financial help and support of the American people, of unknown, unsung citizens who each day volunteer their time and money to encourage the arts.

Just last week, as a matter of fact, the New Orleans Symphony was too low on funds to continue their performances. The city rallied round the group in a new private sector initiative called Proud Citizens for Our Culture. In just 4 days, $445,000 was raised by the volunteers. And I am told that hundreds of thousands of dollars will be forthcoming from the business community. Now, this is quite a tribute to the performing arts.

And today we celebrate the people of New Orleans and the people from all over our country who've made contributions such as this. And so, again, a thank you to all of you -- artists and patrons and recipients and encouragers -- thank you for being what you are and doing the great work that you do. And thank you for honoring your nation.

God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 1:06 p.m. in the State Dining Room at the White House. In his remarks, the President referred to United States Ambassador at Large for Cultural Affairs Daniel J. Terra.