Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation. He was recently honored at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and used the occasion to explain how his exposure to the arts changed his life.

He said,

“As a little boy, I lived with my mother and sister in a little 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 me old art magazines and programs from arts 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. I remember flipping through those magazines and programs, and falling in love, swiftly and deeply. Those pages unlocked my capacity to imagine a world beyond my own—and to imagine my place in it.

“Simply put, the arts changed my life. They imbued me with the power to imagine, the power to dream, and the power to know I could express myself with dignity, and beauty, and grace.

“But here’s the thing: I was lucky.

“I was lucky to have the right grandmother. Lucky that she worked as a maid in the right house. Lucky that house was inhabited by the right wealthy family, who subscribed to the right magazines, and had diverse interests in the arts. Lucky that family showed their love by giving me their discarded magazines and programs.”

He then goes on to explain how important the arts are to the nation, not only as cultural enrichment but as a thriving economy. But the arts cannot be measured or valued by dollars alone.

“You see, all of us here tonight: We are all the lucky ones. Because there are children across the country growing up in circumstances not unlike those of my childhood—children who, day after day, experience in their lives the most terrible manifestations of inequality.

“For them, exposure to the arts, to imagination and ambition, remains a matter of chance or circumstance. But it shouldn’t be. It can’t be. Not in a democracy like ours.

“Everyone deserves to experience the arts. No child should need a permission slip to dream.

“Art is not a privilege. Art is the soul of our civilization; the beating heart of our humanity; a miracle to which we all should bear witness, over and over again, in every home—from the most modest and humble to the grandest and well-fashioned.

“And tonight—in this place, our national cathedral to the arts, and in this moment, these perilous and challenging times in our nation’s history—I would argue that we need the arts and humanities more than ever before.”

As an aside, I was reminded of a line attributed to Winston Churchill. Allegedly, someone said during World War 2 that the government had to spend less on the arts and more on the military. He is said to have replied, “If we don’t have the arts, then what are we fighting for?” My googling indicated that the quote is apocryphal, but it is good nonetheless.