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Although George Washington believed that “excellence” in the arts required “public encouragements,” federal support for the arts remained unrealized until the twentieth century. During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt established arts projects to employ artists, writers, actors, and even vaudeville performers to entertain the public. In 1958, President Eisenhower signed legislation establishing the National Cultural Center and an advisory committee on the arts, initiatives that eventually resulted in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. After President Kennedy invited arts luminaries to his inauguration gala to foster an atmosphere of “collaboration between government and the arts,” the artistic community responded enthusiastically.

I’d like to see a special comedy channel created on TV where all these great clowns . . . could do their stuff. I think the Government should subsidize them. . . . We spend so much money on stupid things, why not entertain the public?—Bob Hope, 1973


John F. Kennedy and the Arts

President-elect John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) signaled his intent to support the arts by inviting 155 leaders in American arts and sciences to inaugural events. Kennedy once remarked on the importance of music as “not just as part of our arsenal in the cold war, but as an integral part of a free society.” Hollywood producer Dore Schary (1905–1980)believed, “When Kennedy endorses ballet, painting and theatre, the average man is bound to change his mind about such things being effete.”

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  • Telegram from President-elect and Mrs. John F. Kennedy (1929–1994) to Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990), January 12, 1961. Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (071.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0071]

  • Letter from President John F. Kennedy to Leonard Bernstein, September 8, 1961. Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (072.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0072]

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Prominent Performers at JFK’s Inauguration

Of the inauguration-eve gala Frank Sinatra (1915–1998) organized for his friend, President-elect Kennedy (1917–1963), columnist Russell Baker (b. 1925) wrote that it “may have been the most stunning assembly of theatrical talent ever brought together for a single show.” Kennedy, Vice President-elect Lyndon Johnson (1908–1973), and Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) took part in an extravaganza that included Ethel Merman (1908–1984), Sir Laurence Olivier (1907–1989), Anthony Quinn (1915–2001), Sidney Poitier (b. 1927), Fredric March (1897–1975), Harry Belafonte (b. 1927), Mahalia Jackson (1911–1972), and many others. Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) conducted the seventy-piece band.

Leonard Bernstein conducting at President-elect John F. Kennedy’s inauguration-eve gala, with Kennedy in background. National Guard Armory, Washington, D.C. January 19, 1961. Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (070.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0070]

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The “Rat Pack” and Politics

Three days prior to Kennedy’s inauguration, Sammy Davis, Jr., (1925–1990) a strong supporter, learned that Kennedy did not want him to participate, agreeing with advisors that Davis’s interracial marriage to Swedish actress May Britt (b. 1933) and their presence at the inaugural event would antagonize Southern lawmakers whose cooperation Kennedy later would need. Davis was humiliated and Frank Sinatra (1915–1998), who was hosting the event, was livid. One week later, at this Carnegie Hall benefit that Davis organized for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Davis, Sinatra, and fellow “Rat Pack” member Dean Martin (1917–1995) shared a laugh backstage.

Three members of the “Rat Pack”—Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Dean Martin—in Carnegie Hall dressing room, January 27, 1961. New York World-Telegram and Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (069.00.00) [Digital ID# ppmsca-24371]

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“Art Is Political in the Most Profound Sense”

On November 29, 1962, President (1917–1963) and Mrs. Kennedy (1929–1994) spoke at a fundraising dinner for the National Cultural Center that was broadcast live across the U.S. via closed-circuit hookup. Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) served as master of ceremonies for an evening that included appearances by Pablo Casals (1876–1973), Marian Anderson (1897–1993), Van Cliburn (b. 1934), Robert Frost (1874-1963), Fredric March (1897–1975), Danny Kaye (1913–1987), Bob Newhart (b. 1929), Harry Belafonte (b. 1927), and a young Yo-Yo Ma (b. 1955). “Art is political in the most profound sense,” the president stated, “not as a weapon in the struggle, but as an instrument of understanding of the futility of struggle between those who share man’s faith.”

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