President Obama Pens Personal Apology to an Art Historian

by Alicia Eler on February 18, 2014

Art historian (image used with permission)

Art historian Ann Collins Johns of the University of Texas at Austin (image used with permission)

Professor Ann Collins Johns at the University of Texas at Austin was just as peeved as many people were about President Barack Obama’s knock on art history majors. So she did what any self-assured art historian would do and wrote a letter to Obama on January 31, shortly after the President’s remarks, and sent it using the White House website. Then came the surprising part: Obama responded with a handwritten note on February 12.

Johns told Hyperallergic that she did not save her original email because she posted it via the White House website:

However, I’m pretty sure that my email was not so much one of outrage at his statement, but rather a “look at what we do well” statement. I emphasized that we challenge students to think, read, and write critically. I also stressed how inclusive our discipline is these days (even though my own specialty is medieval and Renaissance Italy).

Asked for permission to reproduce the letter, Johns wanted to make it clear that she loves Obama. “What I did NOT expect is that THE MAN HIMSELF would write me an apology. So now I’m totally guilty about wasting his time,” she wrote on her Facebook profile page.

Here is Obama’s response, written on official White House letterhead then scanned and sent to Johns by email. We’ve transcribed the text below; the White House let the professor know that the original will be mailed to her shortly.

Ann —

Let me apologize for my off-the-cuff remarks. I was making a point about the jobs market, not the value of art history. As it so happens, art history was one of my favorite subjects in high school, and it has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed.

So please pass on my apology for the glib remark to the entire department, and understand that I was trying to encourage young people who may not be predisposed to a four year college experience to be open to technical training that can lead them to an honorable career.


Barack Obama


(letter reproduced with permission)


(letter reproduced with permission)

With reporting and contributions by Hrag Vartanian

h/t Andy Campbell, Senior Lecturer in Art History at Texas State University

  • Subscribe to the Hyperallergic email newsletter!

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.
  • Jonathon Guidry

    Im surprised he had the decency to apologies for his remarks!

    • Kim Matthews

      He apologized yet managed to miss the point entirely.

      • Steph

        What was the point of her email, and where did you read it?

        • Kim Matthews

          Sorry–not her point but “the point” being that art and art history education–and liberal arts for that matter–does have real value and can give students marketable skills, though perhaps indirectly at times. Why did he feel the need to speak positively about vocational education by denigrating the arts? Obama calls it an “off the cuff” remark in his reply but it reflects the same brand of right-wing contempt for intellectuals and the arts we’ve been dealing with since the Bush era.

          • keyofnight

            The point is that not everyone can be an intellectual. Someone has to learn how to weld, but few people are willing to do so: a lot of people in this country look down on manual labor and aspire for higher education. If you want to learn more, Mike Rowe has a foundation that gives scholarships to people who want to learn a trade. Check it out.

          • Kim Matthews

            We as a nation should value ALL labor. THAT is the point.

          • keyofnight

            Yes. We agree.

          • Brian Sherwin

            A college degree makes you an ‘intellectual’, really? George Washington did not have a college degree. Abraham Lincoln had only about a year of formal schooling of any kind. I could go on…

          • keyofnight

            You’ve missed the point.

          • divalicias

            So says the man who majored in poli-sci and whose mother was an anthropologist…it was a cheap shot. I’m sure his wife (Sociology with African American Studies minor) gave him heck for it. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some art history majors working in the WH. We need to redouble our efforts to share how liberal arts are marketable — and this wee gaffe gives us the perfect opportunity.

          • therufs

            But, is the value of art and art history limited to marketable skills? It sounds like you think learning more about art so you’re better able to enjoy it isn’t a valid use for the study of art.

          • Kim Matthews

            No, not at all. I’m trying to respond directly to President Obama’s comments. The other point that the president missed is that the cost of education is so prohibitively high now that it’s taken for granted that a liberal arts education is for the leisure class, and that if you have any hope of earning a living, you’d better learn a trade. Why not talk about real ways to make post-secondary education and training more affordable for everyone instead of bashing people who find meaning in liberal studies?

          • northerncanuck

            Well you were making great sense there…until you veered off in to making it a right wing and Bush issue. It’s just reflex I guess.

          • Kim Matthews

            Because the right has always embraced the arts and championed education, huh? Which president established the PWA and the WPA? Who was in office during the attacks on the NEA? No, it’s not a liberal versus conservative issue at all. No sirree…guess I was just being reactionary like the other guy said. Blame it on my uncontrollable girl hormones.

          • northerncanuck

            I stand properly chastised. I clearly see now how Mr. Obama’s insult is in fact the fault of a vast right wing conspiracy in general and Mr. Bush(aka Hitler) in particular.
            Thank you!

          • LouAnn54

            Bush couldn’t spell half of those words.

      • Ben Demolish

        I think he hit the point on the head, and you missed it by feeling personally slighted.

        How many majors of the arts do you know, who had to settle for jobs not anywhere near their intention? Cause if you know of none, I’m grateful you live in such an area.

        I know of plenty of educated people who went into a dead end career. They are stuck as management in retail. Wonderfully educated people working in an unstable retail market. They are capped at advancement. They are miserable. Hindsight makes them realize they could have settled differently, walking away with a better income and freetime.

        Had they gone a more diverse route, they could have had their hobby, while making more of a career. If you are not going to be happy from your work, you might as well be stable and with freedom to enjoy your leisure moments. The huge funnel of students taking “meaningless” degrees is profound. And they become jaded if they don’t have more money to throw into more education.

        • Kim Matthews

          Why would I feel personally slighted? He didn’t direct his comment at me personally. I don’t know why so people on this thread insist upon ignoring the substance of what I said: Higher education has become prohibitively expensive. Something needs to be done. The attitude that only manual labor is noble and scholarly labor is self-indulgent hobby is a significant aspect of a long-standing fascist attack on intellectuals and artists: nothing new there at all. The idea that people who work in trades lack intellect and ambition is elitist and simply untrue. The point is: labor creates all wealth. If we want a strong society, we need a diverse and well-educated work force of engaged people. And for the record, I went to two universities and a trade school.

  • Pamela Price

    Really nice to see this, especially as an alumna of that particular school and department. The skills from my MA art history, class of 1995, have served me well. No regrets.

    • mynameisjohn

      I think the industry term is “YOLO”

  • Awolf6

    This is a great story, I’m glad you wrote about it. Props to Professor Johns for defending the arts.

  • Brian Sherwin

    “honorable career”… if you read between the lines it is as if he is really saying that he feels the study of art / art history — in addition to career related choices involving art / art history — is not honorable. By the way, I thought Obama was supposed to be a pro-art President… what happened with all the talks he had with artists during the early days of his first term? The art centers and all that jazz? I guess art is only a worthy pursuit if it supports his political ambitions. A lot of you were duped… you just can’t accept it. That is not to say that Romney would have been any better. I’m just saying… hopefully the art community — as a whole — will demand more next time before supporting a candidate in waves.

    • Kim Matthews

      We didn’t have any option; that’s just the ugly truth of it. Unless Citizens United is overturned, we are going to continue to have to choose the less offensive of the two choices. He’s a hawk and a corporatist and I voted for him both times. Nut jobs like Ron Paul are no answer either.

      • higgs merino

        Remember when I reminded you: “If voting mattered, they’d make it illegal.

    • jeffk

      “if you read between the lines it is as if he is really saying that he feels the study of art / art history — in addition to career related choices involving art / art history — is not honorable”

      I think you’re mistaking “read between the lines” for “willfully misinterpret this quote to confirm my personal biases.” In no way, implicitly or explicitly, does Obama say that. Come on.

      • Brian Sherwin

        He has willfully disregarded promise after promise, true? It is kind of hard to believe anything he says at this point.

        • Cha Eva

          False. It depends on how brainwashed you are by propaganda whether you believe that or not.

        • Ben Demolish

          As Cha said.

          If you narrowly focus on just want to see, you’ll always see it. I’m not sure what people expect with 2 parties deadlocked and the unethical way unlimited money enters politics.

          But hey, I’m sure it was one guy’s fault that an art center didn’t magically pop up in all our cities and towns. I wouldn’t say it had to do with economics or feasibility at all…. just one guy.

    • divalicias

      Brian — I think he was referring to people who don’t study art history or get a four-year degree can still have an “honorable career.”

      Why not use this opportunity to explain to the wider public how studying liberal arts, including art history, is indeed worthy and “marketable?”

      • Brian Sherwin

        I graduated from a private liberal arts college. It was a great experience — and has helped me in several fields.

  • Severine7

    The the President would take 2 minutes to write this letter, amidst the constant conflagration of wars, genocides, famines, and a useless Congress, is amazing. Period.

    • Tiernan BamBam

      Any politician would happily take 2 minutes of their day to pen a letter that counters a wealth of negative press

      • Doc Realistic

        Not really. Many politicians maintain an aloof and belligerent tone.

    • JVW

      I’m not begrudging you if you are a fan of President Obama, but do you really think that he is the first President to write a classy personal note to someone who is an obvious supporter? It never ceases to amaze me how Obama fans want to act as if the most mundane tasks were never accomplished until His Wonderfulness floated upon the wings of the angels into the White House.

      • Severine7

        Nothing about my comment implies that I think he’s the only president to do such things. I’m pointing out that those who are splitting hairs about the wording of his note need to pause and consider how amazing it is that any president would make time for such things.

        • JVW

          You referred to his note writing as “amazing.” There is nothing amazing about it; it is quite ordinary. All Presidents write copious notes. The elder George Bush was famous for it. Again, why does everyone want to assume that Obama is so different from all of his predecessors?

      • Cha Eva

        You’re coming off as whiny and jealous.

    • higgs merino

      And half of those are his continuations of Emperor Boy George’s programs. Y’know the Dems: Disown it, Rename it, Expand it.

  • Kim Matthews

    And patronizing.

  • Monika Otter

    I agree about “sincere and gracious.” I’m not sure we can’t therefore analyze what he said, though. And he IS the president, and he WAS talking about the direction he wants our educational system to take; so we’d better pay attention.

  • catfips2

    If anything your president would generally come off a little intellectually superior. I think in this case he said the wrong thing trying to back up his point. It doesn’t always have to be points scoring.

  • Jay Oza

    I think they both miss the point.

    You really need both since tech alone will not cut it since you do have to know how learn, think, act and teach therefore, you need liberal arts skills to do that well. So let’s agree that both are essential today.

  • Halleylujah Danger

    They both have a point… (says the comparative religions graduate who now works at a homeless shelter.) Marketable lifeskills are invaluable.

  • Raymond Pettibon

    The Borgias were great patrons of The Arts.The Nazis “collected” great art and,tragically,destroyed great art and artists.’The Man’ degrades art in general and Art Historians in particular because they don’t do enough to serve his own,and ours,Military-Industrial interests.A brief disingenuous handwritten and self-serving note does little to serve the cause of art.About as much as wheeling in poor old Robert Frost to give blessing to JFK at his inauguration.As if the Arts need the approval of any politician.Their public disparagement by demagogic politics played a large role in the success of the Reagan Revolution.Rather be ignored than play the fool in Obama’s own form of patronization.

  • MBJBartholomew

    Art history is akin to world history and is very “honorable”; he still seems to insinuate a lack of value in it even in his apology by stating he was “only trying to encourage technical training that can lead them to an honorable career.”, as if art history has no place among the definition of “honorable”, and I too, like and support President Obama, but it still seems he missed the point, but at least he attempts to apologize ? The arts, creativity, and study of history are interconnected as one thread, indispensable for progress, science, development of new solutions to world problems, the list is long in benefits. It is interrelated to the social sciences, archaeology, architecture, psychology, philosophy, politics, medicine, spirituality, and religion, need I go on? They say children involved in arts do better at math and science. It is the story of us all. Without learning history, we are most certainly doomed to repeat it. Anyway….finished with my “rant”. Dear Lord bless him with insight and understanding to truly “get it”….if he really doesn’t. ; )

  • usaobftp

    Obama apologized because someone told him to. His ratings are down. They knew a hand written note would go viral. All he had to do was call her. This hand written letter is what it is. Politics and Obama. It reads like it more all about him than her and art. In every sentence he refers to himself (I, me, etc.).

    When a white is attacked for being mean to a black, and the white replies that some of their best friends are black, they are crucified. Look at the 3rd sentence. That is exactly what Obama did. Mean to art, then said in defense, “art history was one of my favorite subjects”.

    He called a college education an experience, tech school training a career. Seems both would be both. But the best career in the US is still a career in crime. How popular is it? Over 2 million in prisons. Ten times that many that got out and still doing crime. Millions of new ones entering that carreer daily. Even before they become teens. And don’t forget the 12 million illegal entries, and the many crimes that group commits. And they can’t do their crimes without the help of legal crooks in the US.

    The best part about the note. It can be sold on Ebay and the money given to a poor felon to help get them an education so they can get off welfare and start paying child support. Obama loves felons. Now planning to sign a bill to let felons vote. Another way to get his ratings back up. To deceitfully add to the government plantation.

    • Cha Eva

      Sadly you’re so ignorant of President Obama’s true nature. That’s what you get when you allow yourself to be brainwashed by hate outlets.

      • usaobftp

        Nobody is ignorant of his true nature. A funny likeable guy over his head. Biggest lying deceiving puppet president in my life time. Is lost without the puppeteers. If his nose grew like another puppet’s did when lying, it would bridge the Atlantic Ocean.
        In 2016 Fallon should be concerned because all know that Obama will make the best Tonight host ever. It’s where he feels most comfortable. On TV, with Stars, gripping, grinning, and joking and entertaining us. And like his current gig, all will be written out for him. He just needs to read the Tonight teleprompter and do his thing. Yes, Fallon should be concerned.
        I voted for Obama because like millions, was fed up with government and believed his lies about cleaning out the White House, a purple nation, being transparent, etc. Was had. Now more than ever fed up with government. But not alone. Americans have given government 10% – 15% approval for the past 3 years.
        And now, as likeable and funny as he is, Obama’s ratings have dropped. So he is told to write a letter instead of making a private call to talk it over with this woman. Pure politics.

        • Cha Eva

          Yeah you are.. and you’re so pathetically brainwashed it must hurt your head.
          We’re done.

          • Hrag Vartanian

            Please refrain from name calling. We’d like to maintain a civil atmosphere in the comments.

          • brendabe

            i think you should be telling the original commenter the same thigns. his comments were IN NO WAY civil nor were they on topic. so when someone responds to the actual impact of his statements, you tone police the respondent, but no mention whatsoever to the original – highly offensive – racist- remarks of the original commenter. for shame.

          • Hrag Vartanian

            Just point them out and I will ask them to stop. Moderating isn’t a full-proof thing, but I don’t troubling insinuations and blatant name calling are not the same thing.

  • keyofnight

    You’re arguing against someone else. What in my comment suggested that people who work in factories “cannot possibly appreciate the arts?” I only said that not everyone should be an intellectual: that is, we shouldn’t expect everyone to go on to be an art historian, critic, curator, philosopher, etc. PotUS is trying to get more people to consider vocational school—and not just a Bachelors of Arts. Someone should learn how to weld, there’s no shame in it at all, and you’ll probably find a job faster if you do. In fact, people make a good wage welding and find it rewarding.

    Also, I’m not saying that people who decide to do manual labor can’t appreciate the arts—they most certainly can and often do! All anyone is saying is that people have lots of choices for what to do for a living, but people are under the impression that going to college and earning that B.A. will be enough to get some job or another. It isn’t.

  • JVW

    An art history professor absolutely “loves Obama”? What are the odds? Next thing you know we’ll hear that some rich Hollywood flake loves Obama too.

  • Hrag Vartanian

    I think that is code for he went to an elite private school.

    • Beau Toutant

      Um, not necessarily. I am aware of a public school in North Carolina that offers Art History as an AP elective course.

      • Hrag Vartanian

        That’s really interesting. I asked around and the only people I found who had ever heard of art history in high school went to a private school. I stand corrected.

    • brendabe

      oh now i get it. you want to denigrate obama. what a great ‘moderator’ you are. you forgot to take off your moderator hat before making this comment.

  • Deborah Tinsley

    A win, win. Score one for the Art History programs around the country (I’m a huge believer in studying the arts. Keeps us human.) and score for the President for his graceful apology.

  • joyfulmeme

    Why is this a debate and being analyzed to death? By trying to make a point; he missed a broader point. Ms. Collins pointed it out to him and he apologized. Why go on and on about it?

    • jeffk

      Because it’s the internet.

    • Brian Sherwin

      Ha, ha. The Bush paintings were analyzed to death on this blog as well… are you really surprised by the debate Obama’s apology has spurred? Granted, it would have been nice to read what exactly she submitted.

  • Brian Sherwin

    Alyssa, encouraging people to pursue one track while taking an under-handed jab at another track is a boneheaded thing to do. Note that he is apologizing. He would not have bothered had it not been a ‘gotcha’ moment.

  • Alyssa Yorgan

    Personally I think it was timely of Obama to make the comment in support of vocational training. For the record numbers of humanities MAs and PhDs on food stamps, clinging to the fringes of academia doing adjunct work for decades (often making less than $20,000 a year), remarks about the applicability of one’s humanities training seem laughably out of touch.
    Additionally, the numerous comments made in response to POTUS that basically equate a four-year liberal arts education with like “the transferring of the cultural heritage” are classist and outdated at best. Who is the arbitrator of cultural literacy here? Did Banksy need to be schooled in art history in order to emerge as the influential street artist that he is?

    My point is not to negate the value of a liberal arts education. I have a BM in music and an MA in music history myself. But having been on the non-academic job market for a few years now, I can say that my earning potential is definitely not what my colleagues who have a 4-year in business, economics, etc. is. People can tout the value of the humanities soft skills all they want (being able to critically analyze texts, understand cultural relativism, write fairly well, etc.) but the cold hard truth is that most employers would rather hire someone trained in “hard skills” (if you don’t believe me, just Google STEM fields, demand).

    As a society, we should start wringing our hands less over the “culturally-illiterate” electrician and more over the PhD on food stamps.

  • Torpedoman

    There is nothing sincere or gracious about the guy. He only responded to one of his sycophants out of fear of losing a couple of supporter of his populist agenda.

  • keyofnight

    Ah…that’s where you have me mistaken: I don’t think when a person goes into a trade, they’re limiting themselves somehow. Nor do I think “intellectual pursuits are reserved for people of certain status”—where did I ever say that? I’m saying something very modest. When I say not everyone can be an intellectual, I mean that it’s not possible for every single one of us to try for the over-glorified intellectual work we are often told we can get after finishing a 4-year degree. Someone has to go weld at some point—college education or no. Yes. That farmer you know is a great example. You’re demonstrating my point—and PotUS’ point. :/

    Also, why say “I would guess you can’t imagine how…” —how snarky. How do little jabs like those help matters at all?

    • S.L. Hansen

      You’re the one who keeps drawing a dividing line between the word “intellectual” and people who work in trades. Do you think welding or plumbing or farming doesn’t take brain power? Or maybe not as MUCH brain power as what you would call “over-glorified intellectual work”? I’ve heard the president make the same mistake, probably because the company he keeps are all whom he would classify as “intellectual”. He probably isn’t friends with anybody who is a plumber or a welder and thus hasn’t a clue just how intellectual a person has to be to work in the trades.

      • keyofnight

        Don’t get hung up on the words used. I could easily use the word “academic.” What it comes down to is this: if I study philosophy, I can learn stuff that’s applicable to farming, and I can learn from farming things that are applicable to philosophy. But: the work of a professor of philosophy will never be to plow a field, and the work of a farmer will never be to make arguments against other philosophers. The philosopher and the farmer can learn lots of stuff from one another, hell…they could end up being the same person (I know philosophers who are farmers and vice versa), but they are *different lines of work.* They’re not the same job. My point is that one is not any better than the other.

        Here’s the problem. If I do become a professional philosopher, I’ll probably get more respect than a farmer does…and that’s just wrong. And if I decide I don’t want to be a philosopher, and I become a farmer instead, some people will decide that my farming isn’t as admirable as philosophy work…and that’s also wrong too.

        Lots of kids deciding what they want to do with their lives decide they want to be a lawyer, doctor, professor, artist, athlete, scientist, etc. Very few decide they want to become a mechanic, carpenter, farmer, plumber. We need to change that: it would be better if we said all of us should learn to be and do as many things as possible. But…if we have limited resources (because school is expensive), we should at least know it’s a good idea to be mechanics, carpenters, and farmers. Again, not everyone ought to be a lawyer, doctor, professor, etc. There are too many people trying to be those things. No need to get hung up on the word “intellectual,” here…because I don’t mean what you think I mean by it.

      • Shippsr

        I know artists who are welders. I also know welders who are artists. Some are high school graduates, others are MFAs. Everyone has a perspective. The arts are for everyone to make, to enjoy and to discuss, regardless of your education or how you earn a living.

  • Henry A. McKelvey

    The problem I have with this whole discussion is the “either or” way of thinking that is being espoused. I went to a vocational school (radio &television repair) and later on I went to college (masters degree in Information Systems and Technology, currently working on my doctoral degree), I see nothing wrong with doing both.

  • electricbuttercream

    leave it it art history majors to get THIS bent out of shape over ONE REMARK. learn to take a joke people, stop taking everything so personally. check your privilege. he was making a speech to factory workers who most likely could never afford to go to college in the first place. he was trying to express the value of jobs programs. this professer should be ashamed for being self-indulgent enough to waste the president’s time.

Previous post:

Next post: