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The New Governmental Interest in the Arts
by Eleanor Roosevelt, a Speech before the Twenty-Fifth Annual Convention of the American Federation of Artists, 1934
I think that we all of us now are conscious of the fact that the appreciation of beauty is something which is of vital importance to us, but we are also conscious of the fact that we are a young country, and we are a country that has not had assurance always in its own taste. It seems to me, however, that we are now developing an interest and an ability to really say when we like a thing–which is a great encouragement to those of us who think that we want to develop in a democracy a real feeling that each can have a love of art, and appreciate that which appeals to him as an individual, and that he need not be afraid of saying when he doesn’t know a great deal: “Well, I like that, I may be able to develop greater appreciation as I know more, but at least I have reached a point where I know that I like this.” I have been tremendously impressed by the interest which has developed since art and the Government are beginning to play with each other. I have been interested in seeing the Government begin to take the attitude that they had responsibility toward art, and toward artists. I have also been interested in the reaction of the artists to an opportunity to work for the Government. I have had a number of letters, saying, “I have been working on a Government project. It is the first time that I ever felt that I, as an artist, had any part in the Government.” I think it is a wonderful thing for the Government, and I think it is a wonderful thing for the people–for the people of the country in general–because through many of these projects I think there are more people today throughout the country conscious of the fact that expression–artistic expression–is something which is of concern to every community.
Just a few days ago in talking with a rather varied group of women, I found that those who came from other and older countries had all been to the Corcoran Art Gallery to see the exhibition there. Two of the Americans had been–but two had not been, and one of them said she hadn’t even heard there was such a thing. Finally, they said that they would make an effort to go, and one of the women who came from a country across the ocean replied, “But you must not miss it. It is the most significant thing in Washington.” I was very much interested that that should come to a group of American women from a foreigner. From my point of view, it is absolutely true, for in a way that exhibition expresses what many of us have felt in the last few years but could not possibly have either told or shown to anybody else. That is the great power of the artist, the power to make people hear and understand, through music and literature, or to paint something which we ordinary people feel but cannot reveal. That great gift is something which, if it is recognized, if it is given the support and the help and the recognition from people as a whole throughout this country, is going to mean an enormous amount in our development as a people. So I feel that if we gain nothing else from these years of hard times, if we really have gained the acceptance of the fact that the Government has an interest in the development of artistic expression, no matter how that expression comes, and if we have been able to widen–even make a beginning in widening–the interest of the people as a whole in art, we have reaped a really golden harvest out of what many of us feel have been barren years. I hope that as we come out of the barren years, those of us who can will give all the impetus possible to keeping up this interest of the Government, and of the people in art as a whole.
I hope that in all of our communities, as we go back to them, we will try to keep before the people the fact that it is money well spent to beautify one’s city, to really have a beautiful public building. I could not help this afternoon, when my husband was giving a medal of the American Institute of Architects to a Swedish architect, thinking of the story which has been told by the Government that he must finish this beautiful building in three years. When the three years were up he told them he couldn’t finish it, that he must go on and take the time to really make it his ideal, the thing he had seen in his dreams–he did not like what he had done. And it was not the Government officials who said, “Go ahead and make this thing as beautiful as you can make it”–it was the people of the country who insisted that if he wanted ten years, he should have ten years–and he should make of this thing something that really was the expression of a “love”–a piece of work that was done because he loved to do it.
That is something I hope someday we shall see over here, and that is what this Federation is fostering, I know. I hope that in every community throughout this country, that spirit can be fostered which makes a piece of work worthwhile because you love to do it, regardless of the time you put into it, and because it is worth everything that you can put into it to give to the world a really perfect thing. All that I can do tonight is to wish you all great success in the work that you are doing, and hope that those of us who are only learning and who need much teaching, will sometime be able to help you. Thank you.
Source: Roosevelt, Eleanor, “The New Governmental Interest in the Arts,” a Speech before the Twenty-Fifth Annual Convention of the American Federation of Artists, American Magazine of Art 27 (September 1934): 47. Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project http://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/documents/articles/governmentandart.cfm. Accessed: (September 30,, 2014).