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Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies
U.S. State Department, Washington, D.C.
May 11, 2009

Stephen Breyer
Associate Justice
Supreme Court of the United States

     Thank you, Ellsworth; thank you, Secretary Clinton for being here; thank you, Jo Carole Lauder and all the other members of the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies. I wish Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan could be here this evening. He taught me, as he taught others, that art and architecture matter in public life; in his words, they “report faithfully for ages to come . . . the political values of a particular era.” I wish too that Lee Annenberg could be here with us. What a lively, intelligent, practical woman she was. We all would like to thank her for her inspirational work with FAPE and for so much else that she did for art, for education, and to preserve and to protect our American institutions.

     I am thrilled to have this award. It is shared with others who worked so hard on the creation of the Boston Courthouse. They include Harry Cobb, the architect, and you, Ellsworth, the artist, as well as Doug Woodlock, my fellow judge, Vinnie Flanagan, our Circuit Executive, and Bill Lacey, who helped us along our way.

     I accept the award gladly—though with the understanding that you give it, not to an individual who may well not deserve it, but to a cause that requires it. What is that cause? To put the matter in its most basic terms, we know that sound, color, light, design are everywhere around us. We know we cannot choose to do without them. But we also know that we can choose to listen, for example, to Duke Ellington or to George Gershwin rather than, say, to a banging car door. We know we can choose whether to look at an Ellsworth Kelly, at a Winslow Homer or at a blank concrete wall. We know we can choose to design our public spaces with beauty as well as utility in mind. And we know that the choice matters. It shapes our lives. That is why Churchill said, “We shape our buildings and our buildings then shape us.”

     We also understand that the design of our buildings and the art they contain transmit messages. Our public spaces speak loudly to everyone who visits them about our Nation and about our values. When I hear a member of the courthouse janitorial staff say that he likes Ellsworth’s paintings “because they make me happy,” when I read that a workman thinks that the colored panels are having a “conversation with each other,” when I hear a court security officer say that the “dash of color” offsets “the sadness” of many legal proceedings, above all, when I find that school children and their teachers are touring the courthouse, learning what their Nation’s judicial system is about, describing the courthouse as open, and understanding that a judge is a government official who deals with ordinary citizens face-to-face, —then I know that the art and the architecture are here transmitting the right messages. They are helping average citizens understand that they are their government and that their government can work for them.

     I understand too from my own work in Boston, that bureaucratic need can sometimes prove an obstacle to good design. But that is not inevitable. Security, efficiency, economy, and other administrative needs, are not inherently incompatible with buildings that are beautiful and dignified and which reflect our democratic values. My Boston experience leads me to think that those competing demands, like most conflicts, yield to sustained effort, particularly if government clients, whether judges or Assistant Secretaries, stay involved, facilitate discussion among administrators and architects, and try never to lose sight of the overriding democratic need for good design.

     I feel optimistic about this possibility when I read that Secretary Clinton, referring to her program called “Save America’s Treasures,” describes as a “sacred trust” our duty to preserve “the places and objects that comprise the collective memory of America.” I am optimistic too when I hear the President’s arts advisor, Kareem Dale, announce, “The arts are back.”

     Many years ago I read a dissenting opinion by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., perhaps our Nation’s greatest Justice, in a case where the Court majority held that the State of New York could not regulate the price of theater tickets, because, the majority said, the theater is not a public necessity. Holmes replied, “We have not that love of art that is the glory of France. But, for some [and he really means “for all”] the superfluous is the necessary.” [He means that art, beauty, dignity are never “superfluous.”]

     That is the cause. The Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies devotes its time and attention to that cause. Success is never certain. But if this award signifies your intention to work with patience and determination towards success, I am with you all the way. That is why I thank you deeply for the significant honor that you bestow upon me this evening.


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