Art Works Blog

Post Card from the National Medal of Arts Ceremony

Thanks to some camera work by my wife Debby, I was able to get a photo with Mel Tillis, one of my musical heroes! Photo by Debby Landesman

Earlier this week we honored the eight recipients of the 2011 National Medal of the Arts (and the nine National Humanities Medalists). We kicked off the celebration with a dinner on Sunday at the National Museum of the American Indian, which is a very dramatic and very beautiful space here on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Actor John Lithgow gave a very inspiring talk about the value of art in our society and its importance, and how central it is.

The next day we had the arts awards themselves at the White House. The presentations are made by the President. This is one of the highlights of my year because this is one of those very up moments where there’s a tremendous amount of good will and good feeling in the room, and it’s great to be among these incredibly worthy recipients, some of whom I knew. I go back with Emily Rauh Pulitzer to my early days in St. Louis; my parents were close friends with Emily and her husband Joe, and she’s been an incredible arts patron and philanthropist in St. Louis and nationally. Al Pacino, the actor, of course I knew from my theater days in New York. He was very touched to get this award from the President. And of course there was Mel Tillis, one of my heroes, an icon of country music that I’ve admired for so many years. It was great to see him win an award that he so deserves. He is eighty years old, and this is really a capstone for a brilliant career.

Martin Puryear is a contemporary sculptor, and anybody who cares about art was thrilled to see him there. People were just lining up to meet him! Will Barnet, another visual artist, also received a medal on Monday. Though he’s 101 years old (!), he was as sharp and as engaged as anybody there. When the President leaned down and put the medal around his neck you could see they just had a great conversation. Poet and writer Rita Dove, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, was also one of the recipients. I think she and the Obamas know each other, and they had warm embrace and it was nice to see that. It was just a great group that we had. Andre Watts was the only individual medalist who couldn’t come because he had to play a concert in Salt Lake City.

The United Service Organization (USO) was also recognized for the work they’ve done over the years with our troops. They were represented by USO President Sloan Gibson. I think President Obama was especially pleased about that recognition given his engagement with servicemen and women.

I was thinking about what all of this year’s medalists have in common, and I think it’s a question of engagement. All of them have been engaged with the world at large, with their communities, with the whole of their art, and have had an engagement with humanity as a totality. None of them have been narrow in their work or their concerns.

I should add that the most touching moment for me was the President’s speech. He gave a ringing endorsement for the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and that was thrilling to hear. And he gave just as ringing of an endorsement for the arts generally. He quoted Emily Dickinson and her line “I live in possibility.” He also quoted Walt Whitman about the diversity of our country and the wonderful uniqueness of each American. He really gave a speech that was totally dialed in to the value of the arts and their power. This is the third year we’ve done this, and this I thought was the President at his absolute best. To me, listening to him, that was the best moment.

Would you like to nominate someone for the 2012 National Medal of Arts? Visit our Lifetime Honors tab on arts.gov  to find out how!

Also, check out these great photos from the 2011 Medals ceremony!

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