"The arts are not just a nice thing to have or to do if there is free time or if one can afford it," she said at the museum. "Rather, paintings and poetry, music and fashion, design and dialogue, they all define who we are as a people and provide an account of our history for the next generation."
"The president and I want to ensure that all children have access to great works of art," she told a crowd that included students from four New York City public schools that focus on the arts. "We want all children who believe in their talent to see a way to create a future for themselves in the arts community, either as a hobby or as a profession."
And she reminded the audience that her husband, President Barack Obama, had included an additional $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts in his economic stimulus package. Mrs. Obama spoke in the newly renovated Charles Engelhard Court, a striking room filled with sunlight, in front of the Greek Revival-style facade of an early 19th-century bank branch that was originally on Wall Street. She wore a bright purple Isaac Mizrahi sheath and coat.
To the amusement of a crowd that included Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Vogue editor Anna Wintour, former model Iman and designer Ralph Lauren, Mrs. Obama was reminded by museum president Emily Rafferty that she and the president had their first date in a museum.
"Thank you for reminding me," Mrs. Obama said. "You know, after 20-some-odd years of knowing a guy, you forget that your first date was at a museum. But it was, and it was obviously wonderful; it worked."
Three of the invited children got hugs from the first lady as they stood with her for the ribbon cutting. She told them: "This is your place, too."
After meeting with a group of arts leaders, the first lady changed into evening clothes and headed to American Ballet Theatre's spring gala at the Metropolitan Opera House, a highlight of the city's social calendar. Among the glitterati: Actresses Sigourney Weaver, Kim Raver, and Rosemary Harris; New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, opera singer Renee Fleming, and Wintour, who pronounced the evening "wonderful -- wonderful for the ballet, wonderful for the arts."
The crowd rose in enthusiastic applause -- one man shouted, "Brava!" -- as Mrs. Obama, dressed in a black Alaia dress and Thakoon jacket, was introduced by Caroline Kennedy, whose mother, Jackie Kennedy, was a longtime supporter of the arts.
"My husband and I believe strongly that arts education is essential for building innovative thinkers who will be our nation's leaders for tomorrow," the first lady said, before introducing a multiracial cast of ballet students from ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, who leaped and pirouetted their way to a huge ovation.