Remarks at a White House Luncheon for the Recipients of the National Medal of Arts


August 9, 1988


The President. Well, thank you for being with us today as we confer the fourth annual National Medal of Arts. I would like to thank the National Council on the Arts for its list of nominees and the Committee on the Arts and Humanities for its help in our efforts to enhance private-sector support in these critical areas. And I also want to thank Frank Hodsoll, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, for all of his work.


This occasion is a special pleasure for me every year. As I look at the names of the 12 people we honor today, I think of the words of the poet Walt Whitman: ``I hear America singing.'' The voice within -- heard -- is the same voice that all great artists can hear. It's the voice that inspires them, the voice that inspires great American art. But America does not sing in one voice. No, she sings in many voices, a thousand different songs in a thousand different keys. And when American art captures the breathtaking variety of this land, as it does in the work of the seven artists we honor today, America's voices come together in a chorus of what is best and noblest in us.


We can hear America singing in the compositions of Virgil Thomson, the virtuosity of Rudolf Serkin, and the performances of Helen Hayes. We can hear her in the prose of Saul Bellow and the choreography of Jerome Robbins, in the photography of Gordon Parks and the architecture of I.M. Pei. But we couldn't hear America's song without the wonderful contribution of those who dedicate themselves to bringing the arts before us and instructing us in them. And that's why we honor five others today as well.


Sydney J. Freedberg has helped America to sing by teaching generations of Americans how to look at paintings. Mrs. Vincent Astor, Mr. Francis Goelet, and Mr. Obert Tanner have helped America to sing by spending so much of their lives supporting and promoting the best that America has to offer. Roger Stevens has helped America to sing by helping its playwrights find their voice. Every American, as Whitman said, is ``singing what belongs to him or her and to none else.'' Well, that gift, the right to sing your own song, is the promise and the glory of America. And I'm proud to be able to honor those who've used the freedom to speak and think and write and bring the arts to all Americans. They enrich us and immortalize us and make us whole.


And Nancy now is going to help me do the honors.


Mrs. Reagan. Mrs. Vincent Astor was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and lives in New York where she serves as president of the Vincent Astor Foundation. Under her guidance, the foundation has provided major funding to many organizations, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library. The foundation's current focus is on the homeless and illiteracy. Mrs. Astor was honored by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1986.


Saul Bellow was born in Lachine, Quebec, and lives in Chicago, where he serves as professor of the committee on social thought at the University of Chicago. A Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner for literature, Mr. Bellow was also the first American to receive the International Literary Prize. He's contributed fiction, criticism, and essays to numerous magazines. Mr. Bellow has written 10 novels, the latest of which is ``More Die of Heartbreak.''


Francis Goelet, a major donor and commissioner of American music, was born in Bordeaux, France, and now lives in Riverside, Connecticut. He is most noted for commissioning new works for the New York Philharmonic. His donations for new productions of the Metropolitan Opera include the world premier of Samuel Barber's ``Antony and Cleopatra.'' He's assisted orchestral and operatic composers nationwide.


Helen Hayes was born here in Washington, DC, where at 5 she first appeared on stage as Prince Charles in ``A Royal Family.'' Her memorable roles include Mary Stuart, Queen Victoria, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Portia. She's delighted audiences nationwide in motion pictures, on radio, and television. A beloved and versatile actress, she's indeed deserving of the [title] First Lady of American Theater.


Gordon Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, and in his youth supported himself by working as a piano player and professional basketball player. A newsreel led him to buy his first camera. And within a few months, he had his first exhibit. His career includes 19 years on assignments for Life magazine. Mr. Parks is an accomplished photographer, composer, writer, and director of films.


I.M. Pei was born in China and came to this country to study architecture. He began his own firm, known as the I.M. Pei and Partners. A world-acclaimed architect, Mr. Pei has designed nearly 50 projects in the United States and abroad, half of which are award winners. His most recent work on the Louvre Museum in Paris has earned him the 1988 Medal of the Legion of Honor.


Jerome Robbins was born in New York City and made his debut at 19 as a modern dancer. Since then, he's choreographed many Broadway shows, including: ``On the Town,'' ``High Button Shoes,'' ``Call Me Madam,'' ``The King and I,'' and ``The Pajama Game.'' He's directed and choreographed such greats as ``Fiddler on the Roof7E 7E'' and ``West Side Story,'' which is often considered his masterpiece. Today he serves as co-ballet master and chief of the New York City Ballet.


Rudolf Serkin was born in Bohemia, now part of Czechoslovakia -- a little trouble there -- and today lives in Guilford, Vermont. A child prodigy at 4, he made his European debut at the age of 12. He made his first American debut in Washington, DC, in 1933. A world-acclaimed concert pianist, Mr. Serkin has toured extensively and taught at the Curtis Institute, where he served as director from 1968 through 1976. There he helped establish the Marlboro Music School and Festival in Vermont. Mr. Serkin regrets that he can't be with us today, but accepting for him is his granddaughter, Ms. Sarah Ludwig.


Roger L. Stevens was born in Detroit and grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He began his career as a real estate dealer and later became a major theatrical producer in New York City and London. In total, he has produced or coproduced nearly 200 plays. He chaired the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts from 1961 to 1988, guiding its fundraising and programming with outstanding success.


Obert C. Tanner was born in Farmington, Utah, and lives in Salt Lake City. There he's noted for leadership in constructing Salt Lake City's Symphony Hall and restoring the historic Capital Theater. Mr. Tanner's also the author of 10 religious and philosophical books. As founder and chairman of his own company, he's generously contributed to Utah's artistic community. He's also promoted aesthetic and intellectual growth throughout the United States and Great Britain.


Virgil Thomson was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and lived in Paris from 1925 to 1940. He was the music critic of the New York Herald Tribune for 14 years and has been a guest conductor with major orchestras throughout the world. A Pulitzer Prize winner, he's written music in all forms. Among his most important compositions are three operas: ``Four Saints in Three Acts,'' ``The Mother of Us All,'' and ``Lord Byron.'' Mr. Thomson regrets he can't be with us today, but accepting for him is Mrs. Richard Flender.


Sydney J. Freedberg was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and was educated at Boston Latin School and Harvard. He served twice as chairman of the fine arts department at Harvard and later was appointed the Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Fine Arts. In 1983 he became Chief Curator with the National Gallery of Art in Washington. A distinguished art historian and curator, Professor Freedberg has written five major books and influenced generations of art historians and students.


The President. Well, again, just thank you all. God bless you all. And, again, a great congratulation, I know, for all those who are here -- the recipients of this award. And now, we're going to run real fast down the hall. [Laughter]


Note: The President spoke at 1:13 p.m. in the Residence at the White House.