In a 1962 issue of Look magazine, John F. Kennedy described “the life of the arts” as “far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation,” as it “is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.”
Kennedy had a deep understanding of the importance of the arts as it relates to a nation’s culture and society. His views on the value of art were mirrored in his initiatives during his presidential administration.
Jason Atsales, the Lead Park Ranger at the John F. Kennedy National Historic Site, said that Kennedy’s artistic and educational upbringing shaped his appreciation for the arts.
“The living room of the birthplace home has a lot of artwork his mother had acquired from overseas, reproductions of famous paintings she had seen when she was studying and traveling in Europe,” Atsales said. “She actually said that she put them about to inspire the children.”
According to Atsales, Kennedy’s parents valued education and encouraged their children to learn about many topics so that they could be well-educated.
“They really wanted them to be cultured,” Atsales said. “They talked a lot about a variety of subjects, certainly art, appreciation for the arts, poetry and music. He was growing up very much in an atmosphere where children were expected to be well-rounded and to know a lot about a lot of different things. As far as his own personal form of art, I would say that he mostly was attached to literature and did write several books of his own later on.”
John Stewart, former Director of Oral History and Education of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, said that Kennedy’s well-rounded education influenced his appreciation for the arts later on in life.
“As a youngster, he traveled a lot,” Stewart said. “He went to Europe several summers in high school and college and went to museums. He was obviously interested in all these things and had a decent appreciation for things artistic.”
Aside from constant paperwork, meetings and decision-making, John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy both encouraged the arts in the White House to reinforce their importance.
Atsales said that one of Kennedy’s greatest contributions during his presidency was his work to begin funding American artists and their ambitions.
“Certainly he had a fascination with various art forms and brought art to be a focus of his administration. He did lay the foundation of what would become the National Endowment for the Arts, so that is a way of promoting on a national scale various projects that deal with various forms of art to keep them alive,” Atsales said.
Stewart also said that along with Kennedy’s encouragement of the arts during his administration, Bouvier Kennedy took a big initiative as well.
“A lot of things happened during his administration, in terms of the arts,” Stewart said. “There was a commission of the arts and there were a lot of people doing different things. The work that Mrs. Kennedy did with the furnishing of the White House, a lot of these additions that took place, I suspect, came from Mrs. Kennedy rather than the president.”
Bouvier Kennedy began a program to help promote and preserve the arts called Musical Programs for Youth, which encouraged young musicians to perform music in a formal fashion at the White House.
Violinist Emily Faxon ‘62, a former member of the high school’s orchestra, remembers seeing Kennedy when the Great- er Boston Symphony Orchestra, her other orchestral group, had the opportunity to play at the White House in 1962 on a tour that included a stop in Washington, D.C.
“JFK came out and spoke to the audience, welcoming us from the raised area we were on. I was sitting assistant concertmaster, so I was near him. That was very cool,” Faxon said.
Looking back at her experience, Faxon believes that Kennedy’s initiative in supporting the arts led to a rise in the popularity of musicians, especially at a young age.
“There has been an enormous surge in young musicians since that time, and they are generally far better trained than we were,” Faxon said.
According to Stewart, while Kennedy was already a popular president during the 1960s because of his youth and new ideas, the art initiative during his administration added to his admirable reputation.
“All of the activity relating to the arts was part of the enthusiasm that the Kennedy administration generated,” Stewart said. “I went to Washington in 1962, when the whole atmosphere in Washington was sort of exciting, because there was always an announcement about some new initiative to, for example, save the historic buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue, things like that. Kennedy’s interest in the arts, or the administration’s interest in the arts, was one of a lot of new things that were happening in Washington.”