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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

The Arts in the Kennedy White House

  • Matthew Costello Chief Education Officer, The Marlyne Sexton Chair in White House History, Director of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History

Historians of American music, art, and dance often explore their subjects through different topical categories such as genres, schools, and periods. This approach involves studying the individuals and groups responsible for various trends, fashions, and styles. It also means examining how these contributions broadly shaped American culture and artistic expression. Presidential historians tend to focus extensively on a respective administration, its policies, and the political leadership of the chief executive. While these two types of history appear unrelated, White House social events offer insight to the first family’s appreciation of American culture and what types of cultural expression captivate them most. The arts were certainly celebrated by preceding administrations, but the Kennedys created their own path of cultural engagement, one that reflected the same vitality, youth, and idealism generated by the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960.1

This 1963 photograph by Cecil Stoughton shows President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and their children Caroline and John Jr. on vacation in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

From an early age the future president and first lady were immersed in the arts and humanities. Born into wealthy families, they both received elite educations and frequently traveled abroad, cultivating their knowledge of different cultures, history, and languages. John Kennedy received his Bachelor of Arts from Harvard University in 1940, focusing his studies on government and international relations. Jacqueline Bouvier graduated in 1951 with a degree in French literature from George Washington University; there she continued her studies by taking American history courses after marrying Jack in 1953. As a private couple the Kennedys shared their enthusiasm for the arts with their family, friends, and each other, but as they became public figures in the 1950s their interests piqued the curiosity of citizens and the media. Kennedy’s popularity, especially with younger voters, helped deliver a narrow electoral victory over Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon in 1960. The family’s attractiveness and youth represented a revitalization in American politics, and the Kennedys encouraged a similar revival in the American arts.2

The Inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

This renaissance began with John F. Kennedy’s inauguration on January 20, 1961. The president-elect asked one of his favorite poets, Robert Frost, to read a poem during the inaugural ceremonies. Frost agreed to the request, but the day’s sunlight made reading impossible; instead he recited “The Gift Outright” from memory, receiving thunderous applause upon its conclusion.3 By highlighting one of America’s most renowned lyricists, President Kennedy announced to the American people and the world that his interests in literature, poetry, and the arts would not only accompany him to the White House but also shape his cultural policies.4 As leader of the United States, Kennedy firmly advocated support for American culture and the arts. While some of this impetus came from within, he also believed these efforts were vital to defeating the Soviet Union. As both countries contended for economic, military, and ideological superiority, culture became another facet of competition between the two Cold War superpowers.5

This photograph shows President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy with cellist Pablo Casals in the East Room following a State Dinner on November 13, 1961 in honor of Governor Luis Munoz of Puerto Rico and his wife, Ines Mendoza de Munoz.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

While President Kennedy was certainly proficient in the arts and considered them valuable to both individuals and nations, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy brought a greater cultural sophistication to the White House. The first lady frequently invited writers, painters, poets, and musicians to perform at various White House events during the Kennedy era. Some of the more famous artists included Leonard Bernstein, Pablo Casals, Igor Stravinsky, and Isaac Stern. Jaqueline Kennedy also used the Executive Mansion as a stage to showcase some of America’s leading performing arts organizations such as American Ballet Theater, the Metropolitan Opera Studio, Opera Society of Washington, Interlochen Arts Academy, and American Shakespeare Festival.6 She created “Concerts for Young People,” which featured lively performances by the next generation of musicians.7 Jacqueline transformed the White House into an epicenter for artistic performance and expression, but perhaps her greatest contribution to the enhancement of American culture was her work inside the building itself.

This photograph shows First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the Diplomatic Reception Room holding a silver pitcher that was presented to the White House.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Jacqueline Kennedy wanted the people’s house to reflect her deep appreciation for American culture and history, so she embarked on a major White House restoration project that transcended her time in the Executive Mansion. She recruited “Sister” Parish of Mrs. Henry Parish II Interiors in New York to assist her in revamping the White House; they spent the appropriated $50,000 on the upstairs residence alone in a matter of weeks.8 With government funds depleted the first lady turned to private individuals and institutions to further her vision. At her urging the Fine Arts Committee for the White House was created in 1961, bringing together American historical decoration experts and preservation specialists.9

This photograph of the Blue Room was taken in 1962 after First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy redesigned it as a ceremonial room. She revamped the room with a French Empire style by using furnishings from the James Monroe administration.

White House Historical Association

The chairman of the committee, Henry du Pont, oversaw the rapid expansion of the White House collection. As this assortment of artwork, furniture, and objects grew so did the need for a curator. Lorraine Waxman Pearce was appointed to the position in March 1961.10 Later that year Congress authorized Mrs. Kennedy’s project through Public Law 87-286, which mandated that “primary attention…be given to the preservation and interpretation of the museum character” of the Ground and State Floors, and that any “articles of furniture, fixtures, and decorative objects…when declared by the President to be of historic or artistic interest…shall thereafter be considered to be inalienable and the property of the White House.”11 Upon the recommendation of the National Park Service, Jackie Kennedy founded a private association to carry out her vision of historical preservation and education. Incorporated on November 3, 1961, the White House Historical Association continues to serve this mission by funding acquisitions for the collection through its various publications, products, and public programs. With the support of the Committee and the WHHA, Jacqueline Kennedy refurbished most of the family rooms on the Second Floor and nearly all the public rooms on the State Floor.12

This photograph by Abbie Rowe of the National Park Service was taken in the Fish Room during the presentation of the first edition of the White House Guide Book to President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy on June 28, 1962.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

While the Kennedys lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for fewer than three years, they left a lasting impression on the relationship between the first family and its promotion of the American arts. By utilizing the White House as a national stage, the Kennedys used this platform to display some of America’s finest talents to the world. But their support of American culture did not end with poetry readings or concerts; they applied the same mentality to the Executive Mansion itself. By restoring the White House as a “living museum,” Jacqueline Kennedy brought historic objects, furniture, and artwork back to the White House. Many of the first lady’s restoration plans were nearly complete by November 1963, but the assassination of the president prematurely ended the Kennedy renaissance. While the nation grieved for its slain leader, politicians praised John F. Kennedy as a symbol of courage, passing legislation on civil rights, tax reform, and work training programs on his behalf. Congress declared in 1964 that the recently proposed National Cultural Center along the Potomac River would be renamed the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as a “living memorial” to the former president.13 Ever since, the White House as a “living museum” and the Kennedy Center as a “living memorial” have educated millions of Americans about our country’s history and culture. These institutions were inspired by the visions of President Kennedy and First Lady Jaqueline, and their impact on the American arts still resonates today.