ASPEN Institute Remarks

On February 15, 2012 Roosevelt House hosted its latest installment of the Aspen at Roosevelt House series, which creates a space for scholars, artists, and policymakers to discuss the role of the arts in contemporary America. In his opening remarks below, Jonathan Fanton highlights the ways in which the Roosevelts supported the arts as a means to create a more vigorous democracy.

Aspen Institute at Roosevelt House

February 15, 2012

Good evening. I am Jonathan Fanton, Interim Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute. It is my great pleasure to welcome you back for the latest program in the Aspen at Roosevelt House series, which provides a forum for discussing the role of the arts in contemporary American life. We are delighted to continue our partnership with the Aspen Institute Arts program, which fosters collaboration among artists, sponsors, and policymakers to maintain the vibrancy of the arts around the globe. And we thank Aspen for arranging a discussion with Hunter students earlier today exposing the thinkers and doers of the future to this extraordinary panel.

Tonight we will explore, together, how cultural institutions can create and design places that enable the public to engage more fully with art and architecture.

You are in one of those spaces and we are honored that the architect for the restoration of the Roosevelt Houses, James Stewart Polshek, is with us this evening.

I say “houses” because Franklin’s mother, Sara, built twin townhouses and gave one to Franklin and Eleanor as a wedding gift in 1908. These houses were the center of family life for the Roosevelts until they moved to the White House. This is where Eleanor and Franklin raised their children, where Franklin recuperated from polio, where he planned his return to public life, where he made his first address to the Nation as President-elect from the second floor drawing room and planned the New Deal from his private study looking out on 65th Street. After the program walk around and feel the history.

When mother Sara died, Franklin and Eleanor wanted the houses to go to Hunter College and, in 1943, they became an interfaith student center until 1992 when they closed in disrepair. They stood vacant, deteriorating, until Hunter President Jennifer Raab had the vision and determination to renovate the houses as a public policy institute.

James Polshek, together with his colleagues, including Richard Olcott, did a brilliant job in restoring the beautiful details of the rooms while adapting them to meet current codes and find a new life as an academic building. The only addition is this intimate auditorium, now a center for public discussions of critical issues.

In addition to public programs like this one, the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute offers undergraduate degrees in domestic policy and international human rights and brings faculty from across Hunter departments together for interdisciplinary research projects.

It is appropriate that the Aspen series on “Spaces for Creative Dialogue in the 21st Century” is located here.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt understood the central role of the arts in deepening our understanding of our common humanity and firing our ambition to build a just and humane society. Hear Eleanor’s words at the 1934 Annual Convention of the American Federation of Artists talking about the importance of the arts which, in her words, have “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 … given …support and …help…, is going to mean an enormous amount in our development as a people.  …from these years of hard times, if we … have gained the acceptance … that the Government has an interest in the development of artistic expression, … and if we have been able to widen… the interest of the people as a whole in art, [then] we have reaped a really golden harvest out of what many of us feel have been barren years.”

And these words were backed up with deeds. The Federal Theater and Federal Arts Projects gave work to writers and artists in theater, visual arts, and music; established arts education programs in community centers and schools; and helped infuse art and culture into the lives of ordinary Americans during the height of the Depression. And the Civil Works Administration restored prominent buildings like the Montana State Capitol and built majestic new ones like the Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh.

These and other New Deal projects are brought to vivid life in the photography exhibit on display on the first and lower floors right here in this house. It includes works by legendary photographers like Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks. We invite all of you to tour both the exhibit and the houses before you leave today. We are also proud to have a complete collection of WPA Guides, the indispensible travel guidebooks created by the Federal Writers Project, that gave work to such budding writers as Ralph Ellison, Studs Terkel and Richard Wright.

The next generation of creators and conservators of our culture are being trained at Hunter in theater, film, music, art history, painting, photography, dance and writing. Indeed a new program supported by the Mellon Foundation, Hunter’s “Arts Across the Curriculum” provides faculty with the opportunity to introduce new forms of visual and performing art, and creative writing into their classrooms.

So there are three good reasons why we are gathered in the right place: a college that cares deeply about the role of the arts in our society; in the home of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, who did so much to nurture artists and public art; and in a space that encourages open and intimate conversations about important public issues.

It is now my pleasure to introduce today’s moderator, legendary ballet dancer and the Director of the arts programs at the Aspen Institute, Damian Woetzel. Damian was a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet for 20 years, has worked as a choreographer, teacher, a tireless arts advocate, and, recently, as the director of the first performance of the White House Dance Series hosted by Michelle Obama. What better example of the spirit and legacy of Franklin and Eleanor, and who better to lead our conversation.

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