An Open Letter to Mormon American Artists: Your Place in the White House

Glen Nelson, Director 

Mormon Artists Group

457 W. 57th St. # 601

NY, NY 10019

March 28, 2011

Dear Mormon Artist,

It is not inconceivable to imagine that there will be, someday and maybe someday soon, a sitting president of the United States of America who is Mormon. It’s an extraordinary statement, as surprising in its way as a prediction fifty years ago must have been that the nation would elect an African American president. Whether that Mormon leader of the free world will be a Romney, a Huntsman, a Reid, or someone yet to emerge from either party, it is a moment to prepare for.

You are not ready. The LDS politicians are; you’re not.

What have you got to do with politics, you ask? Read on.

Fifty years ago, Jacqueline Kennedy came across a list of artworks in the White House permanent collection. Buried among the approximately 400 objects and artworks were eight paintings by Paul Cézanne, not one of which was on display. This epiphany—that Cézannes were in storage while countless, less distinguished works were hanging on the most powerful walls in the world—started a transformation of the White House into a national arts showplace. Since then, each president and his family have taken seriously the task of decorating the White House using art from the permanent collection mixed with loans from other institutions. There are limits. Any changes in the historic, public rooms must be approved by the White House curator and the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, and nearly all of the art is American (although there’s a Monet on display too, right now), but the Oval Office, private quarters, and other some spaces are altered extensively by each administration to reflect their personalities.

Just as the artwork and décor in your own house tells visitors about you, presidential families have used the backdrop of the White House upon which to hang clues to their identity, ideals, and passions. These include western art hung by President Reagan and President G.W. Bush, Southern art showcased during the administrations of Presidents Carter and Clinton, and so on.

Generally speaking, art in the White House is not Contemporary Art. In fact, new art as been more of a liability than an asset recently. There are a few exceptions. In 1970, Andrew Wyeth became the first artist to have a one-man exhibition in the White House, and during the Clinton era, Steven Spielberg donated a Norman Rockwell painting that has hung in the Oval office through three administrations. Still, the atmosphere of rooms in the White House is historical, formal, museum-like. The last time I was on a tour of the White House, five years ago, I felt like I was walking through the period design rooms at the Metropolitan Museum. As beautiful as they were, I found it hard to believe that anyone worked there, let alone lived there.

The Obama White House, particularly their residence, is different. According to media reports, it is brimming with works by living American painters, including elder statesmen Jasper Johns and Edward Ruscha, Native American artists and African American artists such as Glenn Ligon. His “Black Like Me, No. 2,” is below. (Only five works in the permanent collection are by African American artists.)

The artworks selected by presidents and their families become something like proxies of them to the public. It makes perfect sense that a bronze bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. is on display in the Oval Office now, and that a quotation by King is woven into the new Oval Office rug, top, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It is one of four quotations. The others are by former presidents. Presumably, President Obama also wants visitors to see works such as Jacob Lawrence’s “The Builders”, below, an important image of Black pride which hangs in the Green Room, in context with other American landscapes and depictions of historical figures.

That brings us back to you. If there were a Mormon president in the White House, and that president wanted people to know something about himself or herself and their Mormon culture (which would surely become a national and international subject of curiosity), what would they display? It is unlikely he or she would want to show anything overtly religious. I could be wrong, but the current, polarized political climate of the nation doesn’t suggest to me that critics would welcome anything that smacks of preaching. All of our recent presidents have been religious men. Even as their public rhetoric has invoked God, their art choices haven’t. For a Mormon president, I believe this would be a non-starter issue.

What else could we show? I’m not referring solely to visual art, either. Think of the possibilities. What would a Mormon U.S. president program for concerts at the White House? Who would the composers and performers be—from the genres of classical, country, pop, jazz, indie rock, and everything in between? What fashion designers would dress the First Lady? Who would be Poet Laureate? At State dinners, which filmmakers, novelists, and historians would be invited to sit next to dignitaries? Who would be the White House Executive Chef? What gardeners and ranchers would source the food for the president and staff? And as the president and the first family traveled, what performing arts companies and museums with LDS connections would they visit? What movies and books would the media report that the President is enjoying at Camp David and aboard Air Force One? All of these opportunities and their accompanying scrutiny would be on the table for Mormon American Artists. Of course, the White House has included Mormon artists over the years, particularly as performers, but this would be different.

I’ll go further: The public expectation will be, if a member of the Church is ever elected president, that a Mormon American president will showcase the arts from his or her personal culture in addition to American culture. So I repeat: Are you ready?

Consider this open letter a little nudge. I’ve spent a number of years now promoting your work. I love it and I love you. But I need to be honest: You’re not aiming high enough. Maybe you’ll disagree with me, and I can understand that, but I suspect you know that Mormon artists are capable of better, smarter, fresher, and more powerful work than you’re typically making. It’s not a question of talent (or financial support, or connoisseurship, or academic scholarship, or training, although historically, each has played a limiting role in Mormon Art); today, it is all about your level of aspiration. I wish you wanted greatness more.

As I’ve talked with many of you; you say you want to be useful to the Church. I hear the word “useful” repeatedly. I think this impulse has led you mistakenly to write hymn arrangements instead of symphonies, to paint illustrations instead of fine art works. Your first creative thought is to write a play, choreograph a ballet, make a movie, or write a song that doesn’t offend anyone. I understand that. Still, the thing that worries me is that a grand moment in American history is coming, and those watered-down, unchallenging, just-paying-the-rent art works won’t cut it on the international stage. They won’t be useful. A spotlight will focus on the people behind a Mormon U.S. president whether they share political views or not. It will be a chance for you to explain to millions, even billions, of people who we are.

What will we send to the White House?

I’d love to know your thoughts. Write to me at