The First NEA National Heritage Fellowships are Awarded
In February of 1978, the Folk Arts Program was established at the NEA, three years after Bess Lomax Hawes became the Arts Endowment’s specialist in the field. Under her leadership, a new program for recognizing exceptional folk and traditional artists was born: the NEA National Heritage Fellowships.
When Hawes first came to the Arts Endowment in 1977, Chairman Nancy Hanks asked her why the Folk Arts Program couldn’t do something similar to the Japanese Living National Treasures program, which offers support to individual artists and important national cultural traditions. Hawes later reminisced that she, agency staff, and National Council members spent the next five years worrying over what type of program might be appropriate: they worried about the size of the award (just $5,000 for the first 11 years); they worried about whether the award would create jealousy among artists; they worried about how to choose individual artists who worked in a folk art that might be ingrained in the cultural commonwealth of groups not individuals. As it was finally realized, the National Heritage Fellowships program took on its own distinct democratic character. Honorees were nominated by individual citizens and were to be recommended each year by a rotating panel of specialists representing a variety of forms of cultural expertise. The list of candidates was then reviewed by the National Council on the Arts, and ultimately the award would be made by the NEA Chairman. The amount of the award was eventually changed to $10,000 in 1993, enough to make a difference but not enough to go to anyone’s head.
On July 3, 1982, the first NEA National Heritage Fellowships were given in conjunction with the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife. The first winners were Dewey Balfa (Cajun Fiddler), Joe Heaney (Irish Singer), Tommy Jarrell (Appalachian Fiddler), Bessie Jones (Georgia Sea Island Singer), George Lopez (Santos Woodcarver), Brownie McGhee (Blues Guitarist), Hugh McGraw (Shape Note Singer), Lydia Mendoza (Mexican American Singer), Bill Monroe (Bluegrass Musician), Elijah Pierce (Carver/Painter), Adam Popovich (Tamburitza Musician), Georgeann Robinson (Osage Ribbonworker), Duff Severe (Western Saddlemaker), Philip Simmons (Ornamental Ironworker), and Sanders "Sonny" Terry (Blues Musician).
In 1996, the Bess Lomax Hawes NEA National Heritage Award was created to honor exceptional achievements in fostering the excellence, vitality, and public appreciation of traditional arts and artists.