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Grace, Beauty, and the American Experience

Early in my career my work involved frequent trips to Washington DC. Occasionally, my colleagues and I would carve out time to catch a play or concert at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Perched on the banks of the Potomac River and home to the National Symphony Orchestra, it is, in many ways, America’s performing arts center. On a pleasant evening one can stroll along the river walk and read the quotes from President Kennedy chiseled into the Carrara marble wall. One panel reads:

I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.

Seeing these words, on a night when I had the rare privilege of immersing myself in a play or concert in that splendid setting, lifted my heart and made me proud to be an American—and grateful for Kennedy’s vision for our nation.

And yet, the Trump Administration has recommended the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. While history has shown that there is strong support for the arts and humanities on both sides of the aisle, proposals like this stir up a lot of attention and anxiety.

The NEA and NEH support both rural and urban communities across America through grants and programs that cultivate creativity as well as jobs, and they generate artistic and cultural experiences that enrich lives and local economies. When you consider that the NEA and NEH work their magic with only $148 million dollars apiece annually, about .003% of the entire federal budget, it is simply amazing that they can offer such a solid return on a rather modest investment.

Beyond the sound economic logic of investing in the arts and humanities are the beauty, hope, and meaning that they bring to so many lives. Whether music and dance, painting and sculpture, film and theater, or history and poetry, the arts and humanities speak to our desire for excellence, and our need for pathos and joy. This is the stuff that makes us ponder, laugh, and cry, the fabric that ties us together as thinking, feeling human beings. If indeed the arts and humanities are a kind of magic, then the magicians are us.

Further along the wall at the Kennedy Center is another quote, taken from a speech Kennedy gave at Amherst College in 1963: I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty

More than half a century later, America needs to keep working to realize this vision.

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Jane Elder is executive director of the Wisconsin Academy. She brings to the Wisconsin Academy a strong background in public policy leadership, nonprofit management, and involvement in Wisconsin arts. Her career has focused on environmental policy and communications, while personal interests include theater, modern dance and painting.

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