Massachusetts Cultural Council (MMC) Announces a New Partnership: Celebrating the Birth of John F. Kennedy and his Contributions to Our Nation’s Arts and Culture.

2017 has begun and the Mass Cultural Council starts this new year with the announcement of an exciting new partnership with the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library to celebrate the centennial of the birth of John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy understood the power of the arts and humanities in our society. And he was not afraid to use the presidential pulpit to amplify that power.

To honor this leadership, we will introduce a new JFK Award at the Commonwealth Awards Ceremony at the Massachusetts State House Feb. 15. This will be part of a year-long commemoration of Kennedy’s contribution to the arts and humanities. It neatly coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Mass Cultural Council, which along with the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities became lasting legacies of President Kennedy’s vision for the cultural life of our nation.

In addition, I will explore President Kennedy’s timeless perspective on the arts in a series of monthly columns. It is fascinating to consider President Kennedy’s words from a distance of more than half a century. Sixty-five percent of Americans are under 45 years old and were not even alive when Kennedy was President. Many if not most of you reading this may not have heard Kennedy or any President speak about the arts. There is power in the words that come from our nation’s highest office. It is a voice that can energize and inspire, resonating even after the voice is gone.

To begin:

Arts and Democracy

What is the role of artists in American politics? Do they have a place? How do they best serve our nation? As a new President prepares to take office, the voice of the artist is being heard. It is not just the artists with name and fame, such as Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes, that are in the headlines, but also the artists who contribute their individual identities and talent to the ensemble, where harmony and not division is required. From the cast of “Hamilton” and the Rockettes to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, individual artists in these organizations have become symbols of a country divided.

President Kennedy saw the arts and the artist as significant in the life of a nation. In fact, he saw them as central, a test of the quality of our institutions. He spoke to the role of the artist in a democratic society in a speech honoring the poet Robert Frost at Amherst College, October 26, 1963:

“If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because of their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artists. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth…In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul.

It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having ‘nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.’” Listen the sound recording of President John F. Kennedy’s address during the ceremony.
President Kennedy believed that the power of the arts is embedded in the honesty of the artist. That is where truth is found. And while the arts can exist in a totalitarian society, there is an enabling relationship between the arts and democracy. As President Kennedy wrote in Look Magazine in December 1962, “…what freedom makes possible, a free society will make necessary.”

As we stand on the threshold of new leadership in Washington where the contours of freedom in America will be shaped, it is inevitable that artists will be barometers of truth and the measure of whether we reach our highest potential.

Anita Walker

About the MCC

The MCC is a state agency supporting the arts, sciences, and humanities, to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts and its communities. It pursues its mission through a combination of grants, services, and advocacy for nonprofit cultural organizations, schools, communities, and artists. The MCC also runs the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund in partnership with MassDevelopment.