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JOHN F. KENNEDY PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM
A NEW FRONTIER
n their first anniversary, Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy presented her husband with his collected speeches to date. Her hand-written dedication was a quote from Napoleon, strangely prescient. “Great men are meteors, consuming themselves to light the world.” This gift volume is on view in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. The Library is the fifth of what will be, by 2013, more than a dozen presidential libraries (a specific hybrid, defined as archive and museum), each maintained in part by The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The JFK Library (1979) designed by I.M. Pei, is sited spectacularly on Columbia Point. Private donations from nearly forty million people worldwide supported it. It is now surrounded by the attractive Hubway, for bike riding along the Harborwalk, and serves an international audience of tourists through self-guided tours, and also twice daily docent-led ones, in addition to its publicly accessible research facility. The permanent museum narrative is dense and its telling is graphic, direct and accessibly live, as I describe below. Its fascinating tempo-
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rary exhibitions are separate initiatives leveraging new partnerships and loans. Collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston marks the “Focus” type of exhibition—a special presentation of one work, with interpretation of its context—that we recognize from major museums everywhere. Presentation of the featured loan, Picasso’s late history painting from the MFA, his Rape of the Sabine Women, 1963, was shown during the recent anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, its political source; Jacques-Louis David and Nicholas Poussin are its artistic sources. The next Focus is a JFK portrait from 1963 by Elaine de Kooning (with a charcoal sketch) owned by the Library yet commissioned by the Truman Library, despite Truman’s personal dislike of contemporary art. De Kooning drew the President in Florida informally, and profusely. She called him “incandescent.” He seemed a different dimension of being. Generating traveling exhibitions is another strategic goal of the Library and upcoming is Curator Stacey Bredhoff’s To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis, assembled by Bredhoff with the National Archives, to open in Boston
April 12. It features secretly recorded White House tapes, video segments, original artifacts, documents and photographs informed by the latest scholarship (writers Ted Widmer, Michael Dobbs and Tim Naftali). Commemorating the tragic anniversary of the 1963 assassination further suggests the texture of contemporary curatorial activities. A short tribute exhibition has the working title, A Nation Remembers. Everywhere in the permanent collection is exciting visual culture presented in the original. We are immersed in 1960s teleprompter texts, screen-printed campaign posters, fullfledged reenactments of election night suspense in period technology (vintage photography, film, audio, TV broadcast), and more. Overall content is the public and private President Kennedy during his White House years, while a senator, and in his naval PT109 days. Papers by Robert F. Kennedy and by more than 300 of the President’s associates are included in the library, supporting exhibitions, and there is also the Ernest Hemingway Collection holding nearly all of that literary figure’s manuscripts and correspondence. Whereas Washington today speaks incessantly of budget balancing, President Kennedy envisioned and brought to reality wondrously visionary, universal ideas, like the Apollo 11 mission and civil rights legislation. He averted a nuclear war, launched the Peace Corps, and brought the Ernest Hemingway Papers to this country, to a room of their own. (Thanks to Mary Hemingway, they ultimately arrived covertly from Cuba on a shrimp boat. It is unusual for a Presidential Library to showcase a literary collection, yet JFK was a fan who quoted Hemingway in his Profiles in Courage book: “Courage is grace under fire.”) Interest in the arts and culture distinguishes the Kennedy administration. Catalan cellist Pablo Casals performed in a White House restored by Mrs. Kennedy; she was also instrumental in securing the loan of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa to the National Gallery of Art, and she came permanently to represent a new leadership model for arts and culture involvement by the White House. The Kennedy White House was simultaneously “timely and timeless,” to quote Lee Statham of the non-profit John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. It was civically and culturally engaged, and that ethos contin-
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Left to Right: Exterior view of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Pablo Picasso, Rape of the Sabine Women, 1963, oil on canvas. Juliana Cheney Edwards Collection, Tompkins Collection—Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund, and Fanny P. Mason Fund in memory of Alice Thevin. 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Portrait of Kennedy by Elaine de Kooning. Courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Photo: Joel Benjamin.
ues years later through the educational programs of the Library. In addition to its Distinguished Service, New Frontier, and Profile in Courage Awards (with a complementary essay contest for high school students), and the annual PEN Hemingway Award for fiction, the Library widely educates through its Forum series of public programming, and does so brilliantly. The fortieth and fiftieth anniversaries of many breakthrough events are happening now. A
sampling of their participants, from the musicians Paul Simon and Elvis Costello, through historian Sergei Khrushchev, Senator John Lewis, Attorney General Eric Holder, to the interactive websites cloudsovercuba.com and wechoosethemoon.org, signals the enduring Kennedy legacy for audiences on site and remotely. Ongoing programs, and free admission for young children ages five and up plus free family days and the Celebrate! Performing Arts
series for families require generous underwriting. An aptly named New Frontier Network has been created to encourage a younger philanthropic audience to be educational and civicminded. Conan O’Brien is its honorary chair. The Library offers a T-stop and bus shuttle connection, there is the Hubway to bike upon, and administrators also seek to enable a speedy boat connection over the water that so gloriously constitutes the view from the museum. They desire ever more interactivity with new generations, to paraphrase their mission, “in order to perpetuate JFK’s ideal that political and public service be conducted as an honorable, patriotic profession.” It is worthwhile to recall what John F. Kennedy said himself in his 1960 acceptance speech: “we stand today on the edge of a new frontier […] a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils…” Strangely enough, an assistant to President Truman, David Lloyd, characterized the de Kooning portrait itself as being in an appropriately modern style of art, a “new frontier.” The Kennedy Library significantly demonstrates that art and politics can forge an easy unity when both are pioneers.
Judith Tolnick Champa is the editor-in-chief for Art New England.
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