A Cultural Legacy

Classic Arts Features   A Cultural Legacy
Remembering the Kennedys' contribution to American arts and culture.

On November 22 and 23, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, in partnership with The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, will present Leonard Bernstein's Mass. This event will commemorate the 40th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death while celebrating his contributions to the culture of the nation. Mass was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1971.

President Kennedy and his wife were dedicated supporters of art and culture. While residents of the White House, they hosted numerous artists, including such influential musicians as Bernstein, Pablo Casals, Igor Stravinsky, and Aaron Copland. Ballets and chamber orchestra performances were a daily part of life. Not surprisingly, the Kennedys' love and commitment to the arts resulted in the undertaking of a project that would be of national artistic significance. It was a project initiated in the 1930s by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to create a theater for the arts in Washington, D.C. Her efforts were eventually thwarted due to a lack of funding, but the plan resurfaced in 1958 when President Eisenhower signed the National Cultural Center Act. A location for the arts center was secured and funding began. However, by the time Kennedy assumed the presidency in 1961, only $3 million of the estimated $75 million needed for the enterprise had been raised.

Kennedy breathed new life into the project. In a letter to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, Kennedy wrote, "The National Cultural Center is the most significant cultural undertaking in the history of this city and has enormous importance to the cultural life of the nation as a whole." Soon after, full-fledged fund-raising would begin, aided by Kennedy's establishment of a National Cultural Center Week that included a fund-raising gala and broadcast TV special. By 1963, $12 million was raised. A luncheon was scheduled for early 1964 to announce that amount and additional donations, such as $1 million worth of marble donated to the center from the Italian government. Tragically, Kennedy's assassination changed those plans. After his death, it was proposed that the center be named in his honor as a "living memorial." His family agreed, adding that it would be the sole memorial to JFK in Washington, D.C. At the groundbreaking in 1964, President Johnson said that the center provided an "atmosphere for the arts to flourish" and an opportunity to "enlarge the access of all our people to artistic creation." Jacqueline Kennedy agreed and, in the inaugural program for the center's opening in 1971, wrote, "Now, at last, we will have a home for the performing arts in our own nation's capital… This is a place not just for the wealthy elite, but for all America."

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