Bill Clinton photo

Remarks on Presenting Arts and Humanities Awards

October 14, 1994

Thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen, Hillary and I are delighted to have all of you here today. This is the second year I've had the pleasure of honoring the winners of the National Medal of the Arts and the Charles Frankel Prize. And it's really one of the great pleasures of my job. I may or may not be the first President who's actually reviewed the recommendations of the committee when they send them to me for who should receive the prize, but it enables me to sort of relive large chunks of my life as I see the artists who have been recommended for this esteemed honor.

Today we celebrate the human imagination and its power to move us forward as a civilization. In honoring our finest artists and humanists, we honor the great American cultural traditions of pluralism, free expression, and tolerance. We honor the quality of our civic life, which for more than two centuries has offered hope and opportunities to Americans from all walks of life, even in the midst of momentous social and political change.

The arts and humanities are our bridge as a people, our bridge to one another. Whatever divisions exist among us, the arts and humanities draw us together. They enable us to celebrate our own individual identities, while also teaching us about the things we share as Americans. They give us a window on the human condition that prevents us from becoming too complacent or too numb or too fearful of the challenges and complexities of the world of today and tomorrow.

Too often we think of art and scholarship, of creative expression and the world of ideas, as the provinces of a cultural elite. Indeed, too often these very arguments have been made by those who would seek to divide us one from another, to divide those who write our songs and paint our pictures and act in our dramas from what they would call normal Americans. But the truth is that the arts and humanities don't discriminate or prejudge, they honor all of us equally. And when we listen and look and feel, they bind us together instead of giving in to those who would divide us.

Song, dance, painting, drama, books, ideas, and scholarship have never been the province of one ethnic group, one religion, one political faction in this country. They are part of our common heritage. They convey all the distinct and different voices, emotions, and images that together make up what is a uniquely American culture. That's why they can be a powerful source of our renewal and our common unity as we move forward into the 21st century.

We need only look at our own history to know that every step we have taken forward as a democracy has coincided with a period of great artistic and intellectual ferment. By fueling our own imaginations, by enlarging our understanding of human experience, the arts and humanities have always given us greater confidence to confront whatever uncertainties loom before us. We need that now, greater confidence in the face of uncertainty, because I believe more than I can convey in words that the 21st century can be our greatest time if we learn to relish and cherish and celebrate our diversity and to face our challenges with genuine confidence. [Applause] You know, I'm glad you clapped for that because it wasn't in the notes; it's just what I wanted to say. [Laughter] The president of my alma mater, Georgetown, is over there. He's very glad I'm well-educated enough to think of one coherent sentence that wasn't written for me. [Laughter]

Given that this is National Arts and Humanities Month, it's an appropriate time also to remember that public support for the arts and humanities, while always a minor portion of overall financial backing, remains essential today. And it will be so, as far as we can foresee. Therefore, I want to thank especially all those people who were individually introduced by the First Lady just a few moments ago. They are a powerful voice for arts and humanities within this administration, and I am very proud of each and every one of them and the service they render to the United States.

Now, I have the honor of conferring the National Medal of the Arts and the Charles Frankel Prize on a wonderful group of awardees.

First, to a man whose music I love and who I found to be one of the funniest people I ever saw perform in person, who later lived long enough to be able to encourage and on occasion rebuke me as President, Harry Belafonte. Harry Belafonte once brought tears to my eyes of laughter at one of his concerts and later brought tears to my eyes with his passion for an event which is unfolding today, the return of President Aristide to Haiti. He once said, "The role of art isn't just to show life as it is but to show life as it should be." Well, Harry Belafonte has not only brought joy to his audiences, but he's inspired people throughout the world with his dedication to freedom movements and humanitarian causes.

Singer, actor, producer, Harry Belafonte has set industry standards with many successes. His third album, "Calypso," was the first ever to sell over a million copies. We're familiar with his work on U.S.A. for Africa, which produced a Grammy award-winning album and video, "We Are The World." Today he continues to bring art and activism together to inspire all of us to live our lives with passion and with concern for others.

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in congratulating Harry Belafonte.

[At this point, the President congratulated Mr. Belafonte, and Hillary Clinton presented the medal.]

The next awardee is the first person on this list whose work ever touched me personally. I'll never forget the first time when, as a high school musician, I discovered that I could actually play the saxophone lead in "Take Five." And Mr. Brubeck, I can still almost do it. [Laughter]

A pianist, composer, and bandleader, Dave Brubeck is truly an American jazz legend. Reaching international stardom in the 1950's, the Dave Brubeck Quartet performed with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, and others. The "Time Out" album was the first modern jazz album to go gold. A classically trained musician, Dave Brubeck is also recognized worldwide for his compositions that include ballet scores, piano concertos, oratorios, cantatas, and a mass. Merging both of his interests, he was a pioneer in combining jazz and symphony sounds.

I can also tell you that he is still playing all the time and very well. It is my great personal honor to present the next award to Dave Brubeck.

[The President congratulated Mr. Brubeck, and Hillary Clinton presented the medal.]

Contralto Celia Cruz is known internationally as the Queen of Salsa. Born in Havana, she began her vocal career singing her younger siblings to sleep. It wasn't long, though, before she began electrifying audiences on a larger scale. She's sung with Latin musical greats like La Sonora Matancera, Tito Puente, and Johnny Pacheco. Celia Cruz has used her powerful voice and style to transplant Afro-Cuban music to every corner of the globe. Please congratulate Celia Cruz.

[The President congratulated Ms. Cruz, and Hillary Clinton presented the medal.]

Since beginning her career as a violin teacher at the Juilliard School in 1948, Dorothy DeLay has inspired and instructed dozens of virtuosos and concert masters from all over the world. Instead of teaching a particular technique or a tone, her greatest achievement has been to draw out the individual talents and passions of her students. Through her guidance and encouragement, artists such as Itzhak Perlman, Sarah Chang, Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg, Cho-Liang Lin, and Nigel Kennedy have become internationally renowned violinists. Itzhak Perlman said this: "Miss DeLay's contributions to the excellence of the arts in this country are vast, and her place in the history of classical music is secure." No one could say it better.

[The President congratulated Ms. DeLay, and Hillary Clinton presented the medal.]

Anyone who has ever seen our next awardee perform knows what great acting is all about. Julie Harris is a 5-time Tony Award winner, one of our Nation's most talented and versatile actresses. Her credits include "I Am a Camera," "The Lark," "Forty Carats," "The Last of Mrs. Lincoln," and "The Belle of Amherst," in which she had the starring role as Emily Dickinson. That 1976 production broke box office records here at the Kennedy Center as well as in Philadelphia and Boston. Her stage successes won her the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Donaldson Award. She has also, as all of you know, lent her considerable talents to television, radio, and film. Miss Julie Harris.

[The President congratulated Ms. Harris, and Hillary Clinton presented the medal.]

Our next honoree is truly a pioneer in his field. Erick Hawkins was the first American in George Balanchine's School of American Ballet and the first male dancer in Martha Graham's company. In 1951, he opened his own dance school and founded a dance company, both of which continue to add vitality and originality to the dance world today. As a choreographer, dancer, and teacher, Erick Hawkins' unique talent has been to place dance in a larger cultural and philosophical context. For his boldness and talent, Erick Hawkins commands a legendary place in American modern dance heritage. Erick Hawkins.

[The President congratulated Mr. Hawkins, and Hillary Clinton presented the medal.]

Our next honoree is Gene Kelly. Perhaps the most versatilely talented and widely admired American dancer, singer, and actor of this generation. He wanted very much to be here today and had planned to come, but at the last moment was literally forbidden by his doctors to do so. So his wife has come to receive the award for him.

All of you know that he is an award-winning director, choreographer, and producer, a household name who has inspired even the most uncoordinated among us to imitate his memorable scenes, as I must confess I tried to do for my daughter not very long ago when he was singing in the rain on television. Every one of you has probably done the same thing, if you would be perfectly honest about it. [Laughter]

Having performed in such timeless classics as "For Me and My Gal," "Anchors Aweigh," "On the Town," and "An American in Paris," its's no wonder that he received a Kennedy Center Award in 1982 for his lifetime contribution to the arts. Whether on stage or screen, Gene Kelly is an American treasure whose musicals entertain people of all generations. Even though he is unable to join us today, we know he's here with us in spirit. We're glad that Patricia is here to accept this award on his behalf. Mr. Gene Kelly.

[The President congratulated Mrs. Kelly, and Hillary Clinton presented the medal.]

The next awardee is the second person on this list who had a personal impact on my life, and I would daresay, the lives of every American citizen, at least every American who is 50 years of age or younger and maybe who's 75 or 80 or younger. Pete Seeger is an American legend. Influenced by his father, Charles Seeger, a famous American musicologist, he achieved international fame as a folk singer, songwriter, and political activist in the fifties and sixties. Among his many credits are performing with Woodie Guthrie's band and composing "If I Had a Hammer," "Where Have all the Flowers Gone," and many other songs that all of us know by heart. He has also lent his music to support the civil right movement, the protection of our environment, and the labor movement. Occasionally he still picks up his banjo, and anyone who is fortunate enough to listen will attest still to his place as one of our most enduring and endearing and important folk musicians. Mr. Peter Seeger.

[The President congratulated Mr. Seeger, and Hillary Clinton presented the medal.]

Catherine Filene Shouse has been a lifelong patron of the arts. Her leadership has supported the Washington Ballet, the Washington Opera, the Kennedy Center, the New York City, and Miami City Ballets. For a half century, she worked on behalf of the National Symphony Orchestra. In 1966, she donated 100 acres of her Virginia farm as well as funds for an amphitheater to the United States Government. The Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts is America's first and only national park dedicated to the performing arts and related educational programs. It is a truly national treasure that I think we should all be grateful for. I wish we had more national parks that were for people to work in and learn in and live in. We owe her a lot, and today we recognize her for her signal gifts.

[The President congratulated Ms. Shouse, and Hillary Clinton presented the medal.]

Professor Wayne Thiebaud is not your average college art teacher. A professor at the University of California at Davis, he's also an internationally renowned artist whose painting are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of Art in New York, the Chicago Art Institute, Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, and the San Francisco Museum of Art.

While his works hang on the walls of the most famous American museums, his teaching allows serious art students to learn and develop from his own artistic genius. I don't know about you, but one of the things that I'd like to say is we probably ought to recognize more teachers in this world. And when a teacher has this kind of gift and decides on his own initiative to keep on teaching, that in itself is a contribution worthy of this medal. Thank you.

[The President congratulated Mr. Thiebaud, and Hillary Clinton presented the medal.]

Richard Wilbur has been a poet, translator, teacher, Broadway lyricist, among others, for— I have to plug one of my favorites—for the work he did with Lillian Hellman and Leonard Bernstein on "Candide." A critic and editor, an author of children's books, foremost among his literary achievements have been his poetry and his translations. He has won two Pulitizer Prizes, the National Book Award, was our second poet laureate. For his translation of French plays, he's won the Bolligen and PEN translation prizes. His translations from Moliere and Racine are the most celebrated American translations from the French theater. I think that all of us know that Richard Wilbur is, among all other things, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, and we honor him today.

[The President congratulated Mr. Wilbur, and Hillary Clinton presented the medal.]

We're giving an award to an organization now that is terribly important. In a time when many schools are having to scale back or eliminate their music, theater, or dance programs, Young Audiences Incorporated is helping to make the performing arts an essential part of young people's education. Last year Young Audiences' professional artists presented nearly 50,000 performances, reaching more than 6 million public school students. Coordinating with schools and communities to establish partnerships on behalf of arts education, Young Audiences has been instrumental in bringing the enrichment of performing arts to millions of young people all across our country. That is a terrific achievement, and I am honored to present the medal to one of our most outstanding young musicians, Yo Yo Ma.

[The President congratulated Mr. Ma, and Hillary Clinton presented the medal.]

I now present the winners of the 1994 Charles Frankel Prize for their work in the humanities. And I begin quite proudly with a man who has been a longtime personal friend of the First Lady and of mine, whose work in education will influence educators and therefore help students well into the next century. Ernest Boyer is a distinguished scholar, educator, and administrator who has demonstrated in his life an unparalleled commitment to educational excellence.

As president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching at Princeton, he's helped lead the national education debate for more than 10 years now. He has consistently cited as one of our Nation's foremost advocates of educational reform. And I can tell you that, having worked with him myself for the better part of a decade, deep in his heart he does believe that all children can learn and that we can find a way to teach them. Mr. Ernest Boyer.

[The President congratulated Mr. Boyer, and Hillary Clinton presented the prize.]

A professor of English at the University of Montana and an accomplished writer, William Kittredge is considered the leading scholar of the American West. His essays, memoirs, short stories, and film screenplays about the West have reached a national audience. Helping to establish Western regional studies as an academic field, he has taken Americans beyond the sentimentalized view of the Old West, providing us with a more complex and worthy history of the American West. Mr. William Kittredge.

[The President congratulated Mr. Kittredge, and Hillary Clinton presented the prize.]

For the past 20 years, Peggy Whitman Prenshaw has been a champion of the humanities. A distinguished scholar of Southern literature at Louisiana State University, she has organized, conducted, or participated in dozens of public humanities forums in Mississippi and Louisiana. She has been a tireless advocate of the humanities in American civic life and has served on the Mississippi Humanities Council, the Federation of State Humanities Councils, and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. She is my neighbor, and I know of her work and how much it has meant to so many of those ordinary citizens who might never have seen some of the things they saw but for her efforts. Thank you very much.

[The President congratulated Ms. Prenshaw, and Hillary Clinton presented the prize.]

It is a great personal honor for me to have the opportunity to present the next award to our good friend Sharon Percy Rockefeller, the president and chief executive officer of WETA from 1989 to 1994. She has led TV 26 in becoming the third largest producer of national programs for the Public Broadcasting Service. During her tenure, the weekly viewership of WETA TV 26 grew to an unprecedented one million viewers and WETA became a forerunner in the production of outstanding programming in the arts and humanities. Most notable among the long list of excellent programs is WETA's co-production of Ken Burns' magnificent 1990 documentary "The Civil War," the highest rated program in the history of public television.

[The President congratulated Ms. Rockefeller, and Hillary Clinton presented the prize.]

You know what she said when I gave it to her? She said, "Don't forget ‘Baseball."' And it was the only baseball we had this year. [Laughter]

Today, Dorothy Porter Wesley is recognized for her role as a preeminent archivist of African-Americana. During her 43-year tenure as the principal compiler of the black studies collection housed at Howard University's Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, she has set national standards for collecting, preserving, and making accessible thousands of books, pamphlets, manuscripts, portraits, and artifacts relating to blacks in America and in Africa. She was the visiting senior scholar at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard University. She also is still in her heart a librarian. The first thing she asked me when I saw her today was whether I was using the White House Library. [Laughter] The second thing I did was get a reprimand for having four overdue books. [Laughter] Please welcome her here today.

[The President congratulated Ms. Wesley, and Hillary Clinton presented the prize.]

The final presentation is of a Presidential Citizens Medal to an invaluable ally of the arts and humanities in Congress, the distinguished chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island. Senator Pell is one of the founding fathers of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has tirelessly served this country through legislative leadership and unwavering advocacy of the arts and humanities. As chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Education, Arts and Humanities, he's been instrumental in providing opportunities for artists in funding arts programs and preservation projects and in bringing the experience and the appreciation of the arts to communities all across this country.

Let us give him a warm round of applause. Senator Pell, congratulations. [Applause]

[The President congratulated Senator Pell, and Hillary Clinton presented the medal.]

Now, let's end this program with a thanks to the good Lord for keeping the rain away and a good round of applause to all of our honorees. [Applause]

Thank you very much.

NOTE: The President spoke at 2:52 p.m. on the South Lawn at the White House.

William J. Clinton, Remarks on Presenting Arts and Humanities Awards Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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