In a ceremony at the White House, 10 National Medals of Arts and 12 National Humanities Medals were presented by President Barack Obama to legendary artists, renowned scholars, musicians, historians, actors, and institutions. The awards honor extraordinary contributions to the arts and humanities and are the highest recognition the United States bestows on its artists and scholars.
Each year the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH) provides private financial support for these Presidential honors, including an annual gala, celebrating all the medalists, which was held this year at the National Gallery of Art.
President Obama in his remarks to the medalists said “today’s recipients of the National Medals of the Arts and the Humanities are poets, musicians, artists, journalists, professors, historians, and at least one chef. Their paths and their mediums could hardly be more different, and that’s what makes them great. They take their piece of this big, bold, diverse, energetic country, they reshape it, and then they share it with us. They open our experience to theirs, and for that, we honor them here today.”
Like President Obama’s remarks earlier in the day, Maestro Gustavo Dudamel, who addressed the medalists at PCAH’s gala dinner, spoke of the arts as reflective of our national soul, saying the “worst crime is to take beauty away from children” and adding, “during times of crisis the unforgivable sin is to cut access to the arts.” Dudamel is the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and joining him were several musicians from The Youth Orchestra LA (YOLA) program, whose performance served as a prelude to his remarks. The YOLA program provides free instruments, intensive music training, and academic support to students from underserved neighborhoods.
Joining the President and the First Lady in honoring this year’s awardees were the Co-Chairs and Members of the President’s Committee, as well as the Chairs of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The humanities citations went to Rudolfo Anaya, author; José Andrés, chef & entrepreneur; Ron Chernow, author; Louise Glück, poet; Terry Gross, radio host & producer; Wynton Marsalis, composer & musician; James McBride, author; Louis Menand, author; Elaine Pagels, historian & author; Prison University Project, higher education program; Abraham Verghese, physician, professor, & author; and Isabel Wilkerson, journalist & author.
The National Medal of Arts recipients included Mel Brooks, writer, director, actor, and musician; Sandra Cisneros, educator, novelist, and poet; Eugene O’Neill Theater Center; Morgan Freeman, actor, director, and narrator; Philip Glass, composer and musician; Berry Gordy, record producer and songwriter; Santiago Jiménez, Jr., musician; Moises Kaufman, playwright and director; Ralph Lemon, choreographer, company director, writer, visual artist, and conceptualist; Audra McDonald, actor and singer; Luis Valdez, playwright, actor, writer, and director; and Jack Whitten, artist.
First awarded by NEH in 1989 as the Charles Frankel Prize, the National Humanities Medal honors individuals and organizations whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities, broadened citizens' engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand America's access to important humanities resources.
The NEA’s National Medal of Arts, established by Congress in 1984, is awarded by the President to those who have made extraordinary contributions to the creation, growth, and support of the arts in the United States.