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Our Greatest Public Servant: Harry Truman


1999 – Harry S. Truman Award for Public Service, Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, MO


It is a great honor to be awarded the Truman Award for Public Service. For one who has spent most of her life in the arts, and especially the theatre, this is indeed humbling. My father, were he alive, would have been particularly pleased for his daughter I think. Dad hailed from North Platte, Nebraska. His father, my grandfather was the doctor to Buffalo Bill Cody and a pioneer in using radium for cancer back in the 1920s. They both believed in developing one’s God-given talents, in the opportunities that education gave and in giving back to society. I learned early on to make up my own mind about things and I think it was the Truman-Dewey election that sparked a pre-pubescent commitment to democrats. I remember my Dad, a life long Republican, picking up the newspaper that day in 1948 after the election, and exclaiming with some admiration, as one does for a racehorse that comes in at 200 to 1: “Well, be damned!”

How could you not admire the tenacious fighter who was Harry Truman? The man who emerged from modest beginnings to become one of our finest presidents? The man who led our country decisively through wars, reconstruction, and an expansive economy? Truman’s commitment to public service spanned four decades. My own was a mere four years. But I was given a challenge: to defend and protect an agency that I loved and that had been responsible for my own career and that of my husband Ed Sherin.

Back in 1968 the National Endowment for the Arts had given a grant of $25,000 to playwright Howard Sackler toward the development and production of his play, The Great White Hopeat Washington’s Arena Stage. The play, directed by Ed, was about a black boxer modeled after Jack Johnson, and his white girlfriend. It came on the heels of the civil rights movement and at the height of the black power movement in this country. It was an enormous success, winning the Pulitzer Prize and Tony awards for James Earl Jones and myself. We reprised our roles in the movie, earning Academy Award nominations and effectively securing out careers on stage and screen.

I owed a lot to the NEA, and my story was repeated thousands of times over with developing artists and arts institutions nationwide from native dancers in Alaska to museums in Miami. I knew the worth of this agency, what it gave to communities across America in joy, in contemplation, in excitement and in entertainment. You could not put a price on its value, anymore than you can put a price on knowledge, or the worth of a Beethoven symphony. They are priceless. And the exciting thing about the arts is that they are everywhere and indomitable in their creativity. They are as diverse as the rainbow of human experience and as prolific.

But they need help. Artists need help developing their skills; institutions need help with the annual deficit that is inevitable with non-profits. Taxing each of us in America a little bit for the artistic cornucopia that is given in return seems a fair and modest exchange. Unfortunately that wasn’t how a number of congressmen, bent on eliminating the small agency, saw it.

“If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen” said Harry Truman. Well, I wasn’t just in a hot kitchen; I was in the frying pan! I didn’t like the heat, but there wasn’t much else to do but stand it. The moral majority had been gunning for the agency for years and as their influence increased and they helped elect more and more to congress the pressure on the NEA increased proportionately, culminating with Newt Gingrich’s 104th congress in 1995. There was no question in my mind that the agency was being used as a political football, that the charges were trumped up and guaranteed to fill the coffers of campaign finances. The media fueled the flames by concentrating on the most egregious charges, a handful of grants that made it sound like the Endowment only funded nudity, eroticism, lapsed Catholics and homosexuals. The truth was far more mundane in 1995– approximately 110,000 grants in 30 years, and only about 45 of them had caused some people some problems. That kind of record outdistanced almost any government agency as a ratio of success, certainly behemoths like the Department of Defense; after all problematic art causes nothing more than talk; problematic military decisions can kill.

Above and beyond the fact that the NEA did its best to fund only the most excellent art I made it clear to congress from the very beginning of my tenure that art and controversy went hand in hand, that it was the business of art as it was of science to ask questions about our society and to probe the human condition. In fact, the NEA works very much like the National Science Foundation: they both invest in imagination and research for the good of society and they do not look for financial windfalls as a result of their nurturing as corporations must. Like science, a lot of what contemporary art turns up is bound to be ugly or difficult, but artists are extremely valuable members of society, even when they boorish, disgusting or sophomoric.

The issues themselves I took very seriously: morality, pornography, controversy, censorship, are issues that we are all increasingly concerned with every day as the world becomes smaller and smaller. We are all in the same lifeboat and there is little escaping to anywhere. We share the same television shows, the radio talk shows, pop music, movies, the Internet, and the newspapers. Most of us feel very uncomfortable with gratuitous sex and violence roaming the airwaves at will and popping out at us unbidden when we turn on our TVs or the Internet. Many citizens are concerned about these issues as telecommunications bring us all closer and closer together and invade our privacy more and more. This is not just a right wing diatribe; these issues cross party lines and enter the realm of basic human concerns.
But where do the non-profit arts fit into the picture? Did the few controversial grants at the NEA parallel the national impact of offensive material that turns up in commercial music, or film, on the public airwaves or in the media? I don’t think so. It is important to recognize that almost all of the art that the NEA funded was an that the public had to make a bit of an effort to see, hear or read. —attendance at a museum, a play, or concert, or gallery or movie; the purchase of a book or folk art and so on. There was nothing that was going to appear uninvited into your home; and if the work was difficult or controversial we asked the museum or theatre to give ample warning and education to prospective patrons. In addition, the NEA does not fund pornography—pornography is not protected speech and although some pornography may be artistic most of it is clearly in the business of sex not art.

As chairman of the Endowment I took pride in virtually all of the art the agency supported in America. Artists today grapple with complex questions in society and their interpretations may not be immediately understood but their message may engage us subliminally and mean something ten, twenty or even fifty years hence. Today’s controversy often becomes tomorrow’s classic; think of the works of Cezanne, or Stravinsky, just two who were misunderstood in their own time.

Some people questioned why there should be any government funding of the arts. After all the arts have always been around and will continue to surface under even the most repressive regimes. Why not let the private sector, individual citizens like you and me pay for all the arts? It is a legitimate question and one I had to respond to with some regularity in Washington. The truth is that governments and religions of the world, in one form or another have always supported the arts— popes, kings, and princes are responsible for most of the greatest paintings and music in existence.

The United States is unique today in its current funding ratio. Most countries fund their arts today with approximately %90 government funds and %10 private. We are just the opposite with about %90 private and %10 public. That %10 percent of public funds is vital and should be a healthier %20 in my estimation. Most private giving is from individuals like you and me who buy not only a ticket but pay an additional contribution to help their favorite art organization with its annual deficit—everything from Public radio and television stations to your local museum or dance company. Corporations and foundations give substantially too but they are beholden to stockholders and board members and so have an agenda of their own. It those would be unlikely for a major corporation to invest in the apprenticeship of folk artists or even a fledgling opera company in a small city for example. But the local arts council will, the state arts council might and the federal government could if the work were of outstanding quality.

Government funding is all about opportunity and access for all. I think this is a concept that would have appealed to Harry Truman. He was a fine classical pianist himself and Margaret Truman was an accomplished singer. He would have recognized the importance of art to everyone in the nation and to the cultivation of the highest aspirations of civilization. As a species we human beings are unique in the exquisite use of symbols—symbols that have given us everything from language to planetary travel to Beethoven string quartets. And there are some things that cannot be conveyed without the language of poetry, without art. That is, after all, what excites us about past civilizations: their art–we do not celebrate them for their wars. or their destructiveness but for the beauty and ingenuity of their art. The story goes that during the height of the Second World War Winston Churchill was asked to cut the arts council budget. “Hell no!” he replied, “What have we been fighting for?”

And so I believe Harry Truman would have applauded the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts and would have given hell to those who might seek to dismantle it. I could have used his indomitable spirit during the four years I was there. With help from arts advocates all across America we managed to keep the agency alive although eviscerated. The partisan fighting over the Endowment was humiliating to me as an artist, embarrassing to me as a citizen of this great country and infuriating to me as the head of the agency. We live, regrettably, in a time when there are no visionaries in federal government, no statesmen and no heroes. We live in a time when getting elected and staying elected is more important than leading our nation well. We live in a time of stagnation of governance due to extreme partisanship. We live in a time when talking a poll means more than taking a stand. Don’t you miss Harry Truman?

As we close out this century, a time of extraordinary achievement in the arts and sciences, we need to take stock of who we are and where we are going. Our priorities as a nation need serious and thoughtful attention by men and women of vision. These men and women exist, they are among us in the world. They may not be in government, but they can be found among you in your neighborhoods, and at your workplace. You know them and you know that they make a difference. I call them local heroes, and they are the ones who will continue to keep America honest and proud and compassionate. And someday when campaign finance reform is a reality, and when getting elected doesn’t mean a mudslinging campaign, these men and women will be legislative leaders of greatness again. Truman believed in the triumph of humanity’s better nature, and so do I.

I know that Harry Truman was not a fan of women in the top echelons of government but I wonder if he would change his mind today. Women are running many things now and doing a good job. I have absolutely no doubt that women will make the world a better place to live in. I believe we need equal representation in government and in corporate boardrooms where decisions are made It is time now, on the cusp of a new millenium, to envision ourselves as the civilization we want to be: a civilization that cares for its planet earth and its people as we individually care for our own health and welfare; a civilization free of weapons of mass destruction and poisons; a civilization that celebrates our differences through story and song.

James Agee wrote, “With every child who is born, under no matter what circumstances, the potentiality of the human race is born again.” You can see that in the face of every little boy or girl. The expectation, the delight in life and the creative spirit. It should be our job to promote that throughout life, not stifle it After all, when we teach a child to sing or play the flute, we teach her to listen. When we teach her to draw, we teach her to see. When we teach a child to dance, we teach him about his body and about space, and when he acts onstage, he learns about character and motivation. When we teach a child design, we reveal the geometry of the world. When we teach children about the folk and traditional arts and the great masterpieces of the world, we teach them to celebrate their roots and find their own place in history. Art, creativity and imagination are the very bedrock of what it means to be human, and as historian Daniel Boorstin says, they are what “awakens people to their own possibilities.”

I am thankful to have been given the opportunity lead one of our nation’s finest agencies the National Endowment for the Arts. I am pleased to have been of service to honor in the name of one of the public. And I am deeply grateful for this extraordinary our greatest public servants, Harry Truman.



Copyright 2019 by Jane Alexander. All rights reserved.