Darren Walker (photo)

April 16, 2018

Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies
Annual Dinner
United States Department of State

Remarks as Prepared

Good evening! Thank you for this extraordinary and humbling honor and for including me in this special tribute to the lives and legacies of Lee and Walter Annenberg.

We’re gathered tonight in the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room—named for the “father of the foreign service”—itself a monument to the power of diplomacy.

And from Alexis de Tocqueville on, countless observers and historians have regarded Franklin as “the first American.” But if Franklin was “the first,” then surely Lee and Walter were the most quintessential. As collectors and connoisseurs of art, they understood that art has a power to move and persuade—to stir empathy and action in ways that talking points and trade deals sometimes cannot. As an ambassador and a diplomat, they understood the value of cultural exchange—that sharing our ideas and our art, our language and our culture, heightens empathy and understanding. And above all, Lee and Walter were patriots who believed in the power of culture to bring people together.

They built bridges. They embraced the rich and diverse fabric of our nation—and they worked their entire lives to foster mutual understanding among cultures, countries, and continents.

These are the same values that FAPE embodies, and represents, and advances. They underlie FAPE’s mission of spreading American art around the world, filling our embassies with masterpieces that represent our people, expressing and extending the American idea.

And it’s this vision that Lee and Wendy Luers, and so many others, helped to imbue and energize and enshrine within this Foundation. Today, the torch has been passed, and Jo Carole and Eden carry on this legacy. And together with Jennifer and Caitlin, they have reinvigorated this institution for our current moment.

All of us are gathered tonight because we share in this vision. Like Lee and Walter, we believe in the importance of forging strong relationships between people and nations, of supporting civic institutions that bring people together, and of sharing and lifting up art that breeds empathy and understanding.

That notion—that art can allow us to make sense of the world we live in, and imagine a better one—is in fact quite personal to me, too. When I was a little boy, I lived with my mother and sister in a small shotgun house—in an African-American community in rural Liberty County, Texas. My grandmother worked as a maid in the home of a wealthy Houston family. And every month, she would bring old art magazines and programs from events the family attended.

I remember, vividly, feeling transfixed by the magic I saw on those pages—by images of worlds to which I had no other exposure. Those pages unlocked my capacity to imagine a world beyond my own—and to imagine my place in it. I can honestly say I would not be here now if not for my experience with the arts.

Without the arts, there is no way I could picture myself going to college or law school… or leaving home or even the state of Texas… let alone accepting this honor in America’s greatest temple of diplomacy.

And I know that a story like mine couldn’t happen anywhere else except the United States. Because of this, I have always been passionate about working with others who share my passion for the arts. People like all of you. And the artists we get to work with, the work they produce, exemplifies the best of America—the best of FAPE and its contribution to the world.

There’s the iconic Carrie Mae Weems, whose extraordinary photographs grace the walls of the United States’ mission to the United Nations. So much of her work considers how people like me might recognize themselves, and understand our place in the world—be it outside the Philadelphia Museum or the Louvre in Paris or the Pyramids of Rome. She reminds us that our place in the world is shifting—and that the arts can engage with the ways nations interact, too.

And then there’s the great Ellsworth Kelly, and his phenomenal contributions to the work of this organization. His Beijing Panels, commissioned by FAPE for our embassy there, greet thousands of Chinese citizens every day. Those two sculptures—identical in shape and reflecting the colors of the American and Chinese flags—emphasize similarity while acknowledging difference. It’s a sentiment that goes beyond language, conveyed through color and shape—a principle at the heart of diplomacy.

Beyond the relationship between any two countries, these artists and their work also can capture our deeper connection to one another. Think of the people who come to the American embassy in Kingston, Jamaica and are met with Dorothea Rockburne’s Folded Sky. The 41-foot mural, commissioned by FAPE to honor Colin Powell, depicts the night sky in Harlem as one of our great diplomats is born from Jamaican immigrants. The art connects us to Jamaica—not just through one distinguished American, but, in the artist’s words, through “the same night sky we all share as humans of a collective earthly experience.”

That is the power of art: to remind us of what we share, to connect us through beauty and free expression, and to inspire us to believe in a more peaceful, more harmonious world.

These three artists remind us how art can benefit us all. How the arts can reveal our place in the world. How they can communicate the connection between countries. And how art can bring us together, and remind us of our common humanity.

This is why, at a time when the arts are beleaguered and besieged, at a moment when art’s value—and the value of soft power—is openly questioned, we must defend it at all costs. We know the value of a piece of art goes well beyond its price at Christie’s or its standing among critics.

Our passion for American art is a passion for America. Our unwavering love for spreading the arts comes from an unwavering love for our country—which is why defending and supporting the arts is our patriotic duty.

Lee and Walter saw the collection and promotion of art not just as pastime, but as patriotism—as a mission to bring art to more people in more places. It’s why when discussing a plan to teach the American public more about art, Walter said: “I still believe in that idea of making all of the world available to all peoples.”

That is what they spent their lives doing. And that is the core of FAPE’s mission—bringing art across the globe, and in doing so, unlocking our ability to connect with people near and far.

This mission is why I am so proud to count myself among you today, with Benjamin Franklin looking on. Thank you for this great honor, and for the privilege of serving this noble organization.

I am grateful for your company, for your leadership, and for your continued support of our democracy’s art—and the art of our democracy.