A long time gone: Art, the Kennedy years, and the Hotel Texas

The simplest response is that the idea of this commemorative exhibition was born and developed in Dallas. The more complex response resides in the inextricable link that exists between the two cities specific to that fateful day in November: Kennedy's last night was spent in the westernmost town; his last day ended thirty miles to the east. This shared legacy would not exist but for the catastrophe that unfolded during this twenty-four-hour slice in time-the Fort Worth exhibition would otherwise have dissolved into history, and Dallas would have been just another city on the president's itinerary through the state. Thus, a partnership was forged in 2012 between the Dallas Museum of Art and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth. I should point out that, without the support of Andrew J. Walker, the director of the Amon Carter, nothing of this kind would have been possible. The two institutions, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Amon Carter, are the principal actors in this exhibition, and it is through their seamless collaboration that the project has been realized. Let us also gratefully acknowledge that irreplaceable link between the past and present, the woman who was behind the original exhibition at the Hotel Texas, Ruth Carter Stevenson, former president of Amon Carter's Board of Directors and daughter of Amon Carter, himself a proud champion of Fort Worth. Other reasons as well led to this choice. For those who have not lived much of their lives in the Metroplex, the division between the two cities seems clearly artificial and strangely evocative of Berlin after the fall of the Iron Curtain, or Buda and Pest before Budapest. The distance between the two cities is now so small that one is surprised to find that the president made the trip by plane. Today we can only imagine the strange voyage that took him from Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth to Love Field in Dallas, a flight of thirty miles and less than thirteen minutes.

Finally, to remember what took place at the Hotel Texas is also to restore the memory of a Texas welcome that has been obscured by the assassination. The murder of the president left a brutal image of both Dallas and Texas. But we must remember another aspect of President Kennedy's trip: crowds of people were overjoyed by it, and vast numbers assembled to acclaim him (see Fig.1), both in Fort Worth and in Dallas. There are many still alive today who were waiting in the hall at which the lunch in his honor was to be held. What strikes one today is the enthusiasm that they manifested and the stupor and terror almost universally felt when his assassination was announced. Dallas has spent nearly fifty years in the shadow of this obsession without always realizing that these tragic events forced it to radically reinvent itself. Without ever consciously accepting the fact, without ever speaking of it so as not to be seen as complaining, but with the idea of overcoming this trauma and surviving the resulting stigma by which it became known to the world as the city of JFK's death, Dallas has created a landscape wholly different from that of 1963. Fifty years on, part of what is great about Dallas comes from sublimating this tragedy. In the aftermath of the assassination, the city leaders, in a sort of hairpin turn from former politics, asked one of the founders of Texas Instruments, Inc., J. Erik Jonsson, to take over the city as mayor. He was an easterner, an engineer, and a businessman. In 1965 he established a program called Goals for Dallas that asked the question, "What kind of city do you want to be?" The program initially solicited ideas from some two dozen people (civic and religious leaders but also art and health professionals), expanding by 1969 into a far-reaching venture seeking input from thousands of people. He reshaped the city not only physically but also psychologically. Later Jonsson recalled: "They needed something to do, to talk about, and to work with that was as far apart from the assassination and its grieving as it could possibly be. I think that we were fortunate to hit on this, and we took full advantage of it."4We should remember what certain artists-Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, or (more methodically if with less renown) Alexander Cozens-have written about the metamorphosis of a stain into a wonderful new landscape. To pay homage to the deceased president by invoking the highest manifestations of human genius-those by which he was surrounded during his last night on earth-is to remember what was best about those times without denying what was ignoble or ever ceasing to remember the tragic destiny of one man.

In addition to those already mentioned, I would like to thank the following people who helped me understand the period and improve this introduction: Bill Jordan, Natalie and George Lee, James Traub, and in lasting gratitude and admiration, Margaret McDermott.

1 Senator John F. Kennedy to Theodate Johnson, September 13, 1960, Musical America, October 11, 1963, p. 11. 2 President John F. Kennedy to Leonard Bernstein, September 8, 1961, Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (072.00.00). 3 Further reading on the subject includes versions of the events recorded in Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1983); Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (Granta Books, London, 1999); and Michael Kimmelman, "Revisiting the Revisionists: The Modern, Its Critics, and the Cold War," in The Museum of Modern Art at Mid-Century: At Home and Abroad, Studies in Modern Art 4 (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1994), pp. 38-55. 4 J. Erik Jonsson, quoted in the interactive timeline on the Texas Instruments website (ti.com/corp/docs/company/history/timeline), under Community, 1960-1969, 1965.

Thank you for signing up.

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

» View All