REMARKS BY THE FIRST LADY
AT NEA HERITAGE AWARDS CEREMONY
September 23, 1997
MRS. CLINTON: Thank you. Please be seated, and welcome to the White House. I want to start by thanking one of our honorees, Ed Babb and the McCollough Sons of Thunder from the United House of Prayer in Harlem for their playing before the ceremony. And I've asked them to play one more piece afterwards, so that any of you who were late or were more than 50 miles away who didn't hear -- (laughter) -- will be able to enjoy in person, up close and personal, this extraordinary group. I believe we have set a new record, unlikely ever to be broken, for the number of trombones in the White House at any one time. (Laughter.)
Today we gather to celebrate 11 uniquely American artists, from New York to California and plenty of places in between. They have given their extraordinary gifts to the rest of us -- from sacred music to the blues, from Cajun weaving to Chinese opera, they speak to us -- in some cases, very loudly -- of the richness and diversity of our artistic traditions.
On days like this, the words of Walt Whitman seem truer than ever -- "I hear America singing." And to that I think we can safely add, and carving and quilting and banjo-picking and blacksmithing.
As the world moves faster and faster, it is that much more important to remember where we come from as a people. Each of you in your work points us, like a compass, toward the importance of family, place and community. For many of you, the skills you've acquired were taught by a relative or a neighbor long ago, and those traditions passed down from generation to generation are invaluable and irreplaceable. And they affect not only your own immediate family and those who are your neighbors, but they have had an impact on our entire country.
They bind us to our past and, more importantly, they bind us to each other. They remind us that our diversity is our strength and that the arts unite us as a nation. For each of you has worked hard to engage your audience, teaching them by your example. Americans from all backgrounds have been moved and inspired by you. And they will build on the foundation you have constructed, just as you have built on what others have left. You have seen to it that 11 vital American traditions will carry over into the new century.
We have many people here celebrating these awards. I want to mention just a few: Representative John Conyers from Detroit, who I'm very pleased could join us, and Representative Louise Slaughter from New York, because they are two members of Congress who both appreciate what you represent and have stood steadfast in support of it.
We are also very pleased to have two very well-known artists who have been influenced by your work who just happened to drop in this afternoon. (Laughter.) And I am delighted they did - Herbie Hancock and Bonnie Raitt, who known to everyone. Will they stand and please be recognized. (Applause.)
Whether it's fighting in the halls of Congress, like Congressman Conyers and Congresswoman Slaughter do to preserve our commitment to the arts, or entertaining and educating us like Herbie Hancock and Bonnie Raitt, they know very well that the roots of their work and the purpose for their advocacy really rests in the work that you have done over the years, because you have given all of us the reason to know that when we support the arts we're not just supporting the big names that are in the newspaper and on the television, we're supporting the traditions that really created those artists. And that is what you have given to us.
Stewardship of our traditions has always been important, but that mission takes on special urgency as we approach the new century and the millennium. It is for this reason that the President has launched a White House Millennium Program. Beginning this year and lasting until the year 2001, which is literally just around the corner, Americans will come together in millions of different ways to honor the past and imagine the future. The White House itself will be a stage, as it is today, for showcasing American talent. And at the heart of this program will be efforts to preserve our culture, especially our folkways. What we have is too precious to lose. That's why I find it surprising that every year, unfortunately, we seem to get caught up in the same old debate about whether or not our government should support our arts and culture. To those who think we'd be better off without a National Endowment of the Arts or a National Endowment for the Humanities, I urge them to see what you have done. The Heritage Fellowships we present today our indispensable in safeguarding and sustaining the many cultures that together make up American culture. They represent the best of the Endowment's work.
And let me add that I am delighted and very gratified that the United States Senate voted last week to reaffirm our national commitment to the arts and to our heritage, and I very much hope the entire Congress follows suit. (Applause.)
True art is deeply personal, as we all know. I was at Carmen last night for the opening of the Met, and their house was full and I think each one of us in the audience could enjoy the performance together, but we each felt something different because of our own experiences and what we brought to that opera house that evening. But great art does invite others to participate, enjoy, understand and expand their own understandings. It is an exhilarating way to learn up close not only what a varied people we are, but also how many dreams we share in our imaginations. So many of our great artists and writers have understood the immediate connection between past cultures and present-day creativity. And that is why I am delighted that as we gather here we are really recognizing and appreciating what goes on not in an opera house or on the stage of a great symphony hall, but in the quiet corners of everyday America.
William Ferris, the Director of the Center for Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, wrote a book called, Local Color, that describes nine remarkable Mississippi folk artists. Each contributed in no small way to the life of his or her community. One artist, an elderly canemaker -- and I'm sure he was among the many canemakers who sent their canes to my husband when he was suffering from his injured leg -- (laughter) -- that canemaker was so well-known that he received mail addressed simply to Hickory Stick Vic, Mississippi. (Laughter.)
In his preface to William Ferris' book, Robert Penn Warren wrote, "It is far too often forgotten that art and life have an inextricably entwined rootage." That is what you have all
beautifully shown us. Through your art and your teaching, you have helped us preserve our roots as a people. You've reminded us that in our country the ordinary is often extraordinary. By reaching back to the past and inviting us to learn from you, you have brought all of us together. And the President and I are grateful to you for this important and essentially democratic service.
I would now like to introduce someone whose service as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts is truly a gift to this country, one for which all of us, whether we can sing on key --as I cannot -- or have ever painted anything or participated in the arts at all should be grateful for, and that is our indomitable leader of the National Endowment for the Arts, Jane Alexander. (Applause.)