Jimmy Carter photo

National Conference of Artists Remarks at a White House Reception.

April 02, 1980

One of the great pleasures of being President is to be able to live in this house— [laughter] —with the beautiful art works which have become a part of this historic place, the White House. When Rosalynn and I grew up in Plains, Georgia, we learned about music on the radio and with some old 78-rpm records, and we learned about art and beauty primarily from books, except for God's world, that we could observe with our own eyes. But since we've come here to live, we've had a new dimension for both art and music here in the White House.

Another of the special privileges of a President is being able to meet outstanding Americans who are famous in their own right because of notable achievements, and to visit with them and to have part in honoring their achievements for our country and their contributions.

A third privilege, of course, has been to work with the National Endowment for the Arts in broadening the base of support of what the Federal Government does for arts and music in this country. We have tried to encourage artistic endeavors by Americans of all kinds in the communities throughout our country. The administration has increased the Endowment's challenge grants to 281 arts institutions in 41 States, I understand, Livingston, and we've also expanded the fellowship program for individual artists who might otherwise have not been encouraged or not been recognized. And Livingston Biddle has established an office, as you know, of minority concerns within the Endowment in recent months.

The relationship between government and art must necessarily be a delicate one. It would not be appropriate for the government to try to define what is good or what is true or what is beautiful. But government can provide nourishment to the ground within which these ideas spring forth from the seeds of inspiration within the human mind. This nourishment has also been the work of the National Conference of Artists from the time it was founded in Atlanta University in 1958, at the suggestion of one of the artists and educators we are honoring today, Margaret Burroughs.

I think we have to recognize too that the Conference has served to make known the works of many African American artists, and to preserve and continue the African cultural traditions, both here in America and indeed around the world. All artists speak from a special time and place, from a personal inner experience, and at their best, from a broader vision that transcends and enlarges the understanding of human beings, of themselves, of other human beings, and of the world in which they live.

As you know, this is a special month and a special week. Galleries throughout the Washington area are currently featuring black artists, and the Corcoran is exhibiting art works this week of each of the 10 artists who will be honored here today. Mayor Marion Barry has proclaimed this African-American Visual Artists Week, which provides a wonderful opportunity in this new decade to recognize the fine work which, quite often in the past, has not been given adequate recognition.

The artists we are honoring here today all were part of the special story of black Africans in this century. Half of them, I'm proud to say, were born in the South. And some of them were formed in the cultural life of New York and Chicago; quite often in the poorer areas of those communities, but at particularly creative times. Many have brought to their work and to us the pain and the vitality and the joy of the tragic changing into the triumphant black experience of recent decades in their work.

Their styles and materials are as varied as the history which is covered by their years, expressed in their works. Some stood at the forefront of emerging new styles; others renewed old forms and built on them to express their vision of black America and of the human condition. Several have made a name for themselves not only as artists but also as teachers, leading the way for new generations of artists who can make us all proud in this country.

All have practiced their art through the moving and often wrenching decades when black Americans were struggling for freedom. Many of these artists were expressing their protest against discrimination with their paintings, with their sculpture, with their sketches, murals, illustrations, long before the protest hit the streets and long before there was any political action or judicial action. These artists often did not receive recognition for their work, which they deserved, or the opportunities they need to develop their own talent, because their development of art was not under optimal conditions. But they pressed on.

And they are here today, in the White House, being honored by me as President and by you as admirers of theirs. And that's proof that they have won that difficult battle. So, their victory is a double one, one in art and the other one in life. It's thus a double victory for all of us Americans. And on behalf of us all, I'm extremely proud to welcome and to honor this group today.

I'd like to call out the names of those being honored. As you know, some are present, some are represented here, some are not represented here. But I'd like to call the names out of those who have been honored.

Richmond Barthe, sculptor. I've been admiring his work lately. As you may know, those of you who see the Social Security Building on occasion, he sculpted the eagle on the front. He was born in 1901 in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and he currently lives in Pasadena, California.

Romare Bearden, painter who is not present and is not represented here, I understand. But this famous painter has been recognized since the 1940's as a leading abstractionist, born in 1912 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and currently lives in New York City.

Margaret T. Burroughs. As you know, she's a painter, sculptor, a writer, an educator, and a founder, because she was one of the founders of the National Conference of Artists at Atlanta University, as well as the Dusable Museum in Chicago. She was born in St. Rose Parish in Louisiana. and she currently lives in Chicago.

Ernest Crichlow. Ernest is, as you know, a painter, an illustrator, and a graphic artist. He's the founder of—is it the Saints Gallery in New York City, and he was born in 1914 in that city. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

The next is Lois Mailou Jones. Ms. Jones is a painter, a designer, an illustrator, and also an educator. And she has mixed Haitian emphasis with the black experience. As a black woman she's overcome many barriers in her life. She's a professor emeritus at Howard University, born in Boston, Massachusetts, and who currently lives in Washington, D.C.

The next is not present and not represented, I understand: Jacob Lawrence, a painter whose paintings highlight the toil in the building of black America. He's a member of the Council of the National Endowment for the Arts. He was born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and he currently lives in Seattle, Washington.

The next artist is not here but is represented: Archibald Motley, Jr., painter. Who is representing Mr. Motley? He has preserved for America the realism of what black America was in a time of racial isolation. Born in 1891 in New Orleans, he currently resides in Chicago, Illinois, and is represented by his son, Archie Motley.

The next one, of course, is present: James Lesene Wells. He's a painter and an educator, and particularly a printmaker. As a matter of fact, he's referred to as the dean of printmakers. I'm especially glad that he was born in Atlanta, Georgia. [Laughter] And I'm also glad and proud, as a Washingtonian, that he currently lives in Washington, D.C.

The next one is represented by his widow and by his children. His widow is Mrs. Frances White; his children, Jessica and Charles. And I would like to recognize Charles White. He's a painter, a graphic artist and an educator. Will his family please stand? Mr. White's remarkable contribution to the visual culture is now deeply a part of American art. He was born in 1918. He died last October in Chicago. He lived in Los Angeles, California, and we are very proud to have his family here with us today.

The next is represented by his nephew, Dr. Ray Bennett, and I would like to recognize Hale Woodruff. Is Dr. Bennett here? Hale Woodruff is a painter, printmaker, a muralist, and educator. He's recognized especially for the range of his talent to paint anything and anybody. He was born in 1900 in Cairo, Illinois, and he currently lives in New York City.

I think that all of you know the quality of the work that we are recognizing today and the difficulty under which this remarkable talent has developed. And I'm especially grateful, as a southerner and as a President, that in the evolution of their own expression of the deep commitment of human beings, courage under difficult circumstances, triumph over tragedy, a constant expression of courage, and the exemplification of the finest development of the human mind, to show us what we are, what we might be.

It's a distinct honor for me to be here, to recognize this remarkable group of Americans. Thank you very much for letting me take part in this ceremony.

Note: The President spoke at 2:34 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.

Jimmy Carter, National Conference of Artists Remarks at a White House Reception. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/250429

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