The American Presidency Project
John T. Woolley & Gerhard Peters • Santa Barbara, California return to original document
• Lyndon B. Johnson
Remarks at the Ground-Breaking Ceremony for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
December 2, 1964

Bishop Hannan, Mr. Justice White, General Kennedy, Mr. Stephens, trustees of the Kennedy Center, my fellow Americans, distinguished members of the diplomatic corps, ladies and gentlemen:

John Kennedy once said, "I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens."

As I sat here on the platform this morning, I reviewed some of the efforts that were made as a result of his inspiring leadership to make possible the ground breaking that will take place here today.

I recalled that we all met in the White House under the leadership of his mother-in-law, and we used the first house of this land one of the first times to raise funds to make this event possible.

I remember going to Mrs. Post's home and meeting with patriotic and dedicated citizens who in their generosity were willing to come there and spend the evening to try to add their bit to this great effort.

I recall the contribution of the Members of the Congress, and, through them, all the people of the United States who took the funds from the farmer and the laborer, the banker and the artist, to appropriate them so that we might be here today and participate as we are.

We are taking a very important step toward that dream that President and Mrs. Kennedy had, and to which most of you have contributed your bit. This center will brighten the life of Washington, but it is not, as I have said, just a Washington project. It is a national project and a national possession, and it became a reality, as General Kennedy has observed, because of the willingness of all the representatives of all the people to make it possible. It is dedicated to the common awareness of all men. It was conceived under the administration of President Eisenhower. It was inspired and encouraged and led by the imagination and the purpose of President Kennedy. And after his death, the Congress, realizing that, named it in his memory and generously, and I think wisely, provided the matching funds so that we could get on our way.

If it fulfills our hopes, this center will be, at once, a symbol and a reflection and a hope. It will symbolize our belief that the world of creation and thought are at the core of all civilization. Only recently in the White House we helped commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare. The political conflicts and ambitions of his England are known to the scholar and to the specialist. But his plays will forever move men in every corner of the world.

The leaders that he wrote about live far more vividly in his words than in the almost forgotten facts of their own rule.

Our civilization, too, will largely survive in the works of our creation. There is a quality in art which speaks across the gulf dividing man from man and nation from nation, and century from century. That quality confirms the faith that our common hopes may be more enduring than our conflicting hostilities. Even now men of affairs are struggling to catch up with the insights of great art. The stakes may well be the survival of civilization. The personal preferences of men in government are not important--except to themselves.

However, it is important to know that the opportunity we give to the arts is a measure of the quality of our civilization. It is important to be aware that artistic activity can enrich the life of our people, which really is the central object of Government. It is important that our material prosperity liberate and not confine the creative spirit.

The role of Government must be a small one. No act of Congress or Executive order can call a great musician or poet into existence. But we can stand on the sidelines and cheer. We can maintain and strengthen an atmosphere to permit the arts to flourish, and those who have talent to use it. And we can seek to enlarge the access of all of our people to artistic creation.

As a veteran of 24 years in the Congress, I am not a prophet but I do want to suggest to my friend, the new Senator from New York, he is in for listening to. more poetry than he would surmise in some of the morning sessions of the Senate.

Last September, I signed a bill establishing the National Council on the Arts. Versions of this proposal had been under consideration since 1877. I intend to consider other ways in which Government can appropriately encourage the arts. I want to, as the leader of this country, express my personal gratitude to the persons on the platform with me, and particularly to the persons like Mrs. Auchincloss and others that I see in the audience, for the sacrifices in time and effort they have made to encourage, lead, and direct this effort.

This center will reflect the finest artistic achievements of our time. It is our hope that it will house the leading artists and performers. Almost every industrialized nation in the world, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, has one or more national centers for the arts. Washington has lagged behind. Far too often, American actors and singers and musicians must travel to foreign countries to even be heard. Now, because of President Kennedy's leadership and your efforts, they will have a stage here in the Capital of their own country.

I expect this center to be a living force for the encouragement of art. Washington needs new theaters and new concert halls. But if that is all that we are building, we will have fallen far short of today's expectation and promise.

This center will have a unique opportunity to bring together worlds of poetry and power--and bring it to the benefit of each of us. It must give special attention to the young; to increasing their interest and stimulating their creativity. It can serve as a model and instructor to other cultural centers around our Nation. It should open up new opportunities to be heard to young singers and filmmakers and playwrights. It must take the lead in bringing the best in the performing arts to every part of our beloved and rich country; so that theater and opera are not the privilege of the lucky citizens of just a few metropolitan centers.

Yes, this is our ambitious program. But so was the vision of the man in whose memory this center is today named.

Pericles said, "If Athens shall appear great to you, consider then that her glories were purchased by valiant men, and by men who learned their duty."

As this center comes to reflect and advance the greatness of America, consider then those glories were purchased by a valiant leader who never swerved from duty--John Kennedy. And in his name I dedicate this site.

Citation: Lyndon B. Johnson: "Remarks at the Ground-Breaking Ceremony for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.", December 2, 1964. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.
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