Bill Clinton photo

Remarks at the Andrew W. Mellon Dinner

May 04, 1994

Thank you very much, Mrs. Stevenson, Mr. Smith, members of the Mellon family, distinguished Justices of the Supreme Court, Members of Congress, Secretary Riley, Mr. and Mrs. Powell. To the many patrons of the arts and supporters of education who are here, it is an honor for Hillary and for me to be here at this special event at this wonderful, special building, truly our national monument to art.

It's a pleasure to be among so many of you who have done so much to support our country's cultural heritage. Without our Nation's magnificent tradition of philanthropy, Americans from all walks of life would never have the chance to enjoy art and culture, to find true education.

I first came here as a young student at Georgetown. Then, when I was in my twenties, after I had left school, I came to this gallery almost every time I came back to Washington. When Hillary and I met in law school and came from time to time to Washington, we would come to the National Gallery. Later when I was a Governor and came here only for stuffy old meetings, on occasion I would sneak away from wherever we were supposed to be convening and come here and look at these pictures and think I would never do anything remotely as important as paint some of the things that hang on these walls.

For all of you who have given, I thank you. The spirit of giving really creates America's sense of common bond, our sense of community. I want to especially thank the members of the Mellon family and other patrons of this gallery. Andrew Mellon somehow knew that throughout the ages, art could make a difference in the lives of people and nations. Thankfully, that was a gift he passed along to his children, who represent the best tradition of service to others.

I do want to thank, since it's been mentioned, the National Gallery for the gifts of art to the White House—on loan. [Laughter] And I do want to say that I'm glad you've got enough left over to fill these wonderful buildings with so many extraordinary works of art.

Tonight we honor not only the contributions of Andrew Mellon and his family, but we take time to underscore the partnership between the United States and the citizens who have done so much to preserve and enhance artistic institutions in the United States.

In this time of budget-cutting and belt-tightening, the Federal, State, and local governments together only provide a small fraction of the support for our common cultural life. That's why the contributions of people like those of you who are here tonight are crucial to the continuing vitality of our institutions.

I must say that one of the most difficult things that I have to face as President is the sure knowledge that if I fail to relieve the burden on future generations of the enormous debt which has been built up, I will be saddling our children, our grandchildren, with something that will always handicap our economy. And yet, it is difficult for me and for the Members of Congress not to be able to give more funds to things that we really believe in. We will continue to do what we can to support the arts, but we need for you to continue to do what you can as well. We would all be not only less welleducated but, in a fundamental sense, less human than we ought to be were it not for the opportunity to spend time in places like the National Gallery.

I also want to say a special word of appreciation to those of you associated with the Gallery who support the educational programs and the outreach of the Gallery. You know, I grew up in a small town in my home State, and I never will forget the first time I went to the State's art gallery. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Now there are children all across this country that, because of the outreach programs of galleries, see pictures, understand art, develop a level of cultural awareness and sensitivity that would be absolutely unthinkable without these programs. So for the educational efforts you have all made, I say thank you.

And if you'll give me one more indulgence, I want to say a special word of thanks for the astonishing generosity of two people who are here tonight, Walter and Leonore Annenberg, who have done so much to help us to promote education in this country.

I was pleased when we stood in the line tonight, how many of you came through and said something like, "Well, I'm from a little town in Missouri." "I've been to your State," or "I understand something about your background." I think sometimes people think too quickly that these great magnificent works of art can only be appreciated by those of us who are fortunate enough to live in the great cities of our country, to assume the high positions in business and government and elsewhere. But if you look at the life stories of the artists that we honor by hanging their wonderful pictures in these galleries, you will see a much more typical picture of ordinary life at every age and time. You have helped us to bind up one another in a common culture and to understand our connections to the past so that we can better hand down our values to the future. For that, the United States is in your debt.

Thank you very much.

NOTE: The President spoke at 10:10 p.m. at the National Gallery of Art. In his remarks, he referred to Ruth Carter Stevenson, chair, and Robert H. Smith, president, board of trustees of the National Gallery of Art; and director of the National Gallery of Art Earl A. Powell III, and his wife, Nancy.

William J. Clinton, Remarks at the Andrew W. Mellon Dinner Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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