To passionate arts lovers, the words of John F. Kennedy sound like Holy Writ. “I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft,” reads one of the 35th president’s ringing exhortations, prominently chiseled on the walls overlooking the Kennedy Center terrace. Nearby is another: “This country cannot afford to be materially rich and spiritually poor.”
When the Kennedy Center expansion project opens to the public in late 2018, there will be yet more words about art from the 35th president emblazoned on its walls. Picking new Kennedy quotations fell to the center’s chairman, David M. Rubenstein, who has donated $50 million to the project. Rubenstein uses some of the same sources — Kennedy’s famous 1963 Amherst College speech, and another he gave to promote what eventually became the Kennedy Center — which emphasize similar themes about art’s universality and its importance to civilization.
But in the decades since it opened, the Kennedy Center has moved to an understanding of art that is markedly different from that of Kennedy himself. Enough time has elapsed since the president’s tragic and untimely death for an uncomfortable truth to settle in: that Kennedy was never an art lover, and to the extent that he respected art, it was in the same way he respected accomplishment in science and sports. Nor was Kennedy moved by music or opera, or susceptible to the introspection offered by paintings or sculpture. He was, however, passionate about winning the Cold War on all fronts, including culture.
When the center’s new River Pavilion opens — part of a complex of structures designed by architect Steven Holl on the south side of the existing building — it will bear another line from the Amherst speech: “I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.” And the glass of a new boardroom…