Each fall, many of us in the arts world look forward to hearing the names of the National Medal of Arts recipients for the year. Awarded annually since 1985, this highly anticipated honor seems to have been put on hold beginning in 2016. Similarly, the National Humanities Medal ended a 26-year-long streak with their slate of 2015 honorees, and October’s National Arts & Humanities Month—which expanded from a week-long celebration proclaimed by President Reagan in 1985, to a month-long celebration of the arts and humanities in 1993—has yet to see a presidential proclamation since October 2016.
Americans for decades have appreciated nationally recognized awards and a presidential proclamation every year as a show of support and encouragement to unleash creativity and reach for new heights. This year that hope was no different and I have been asked again and again for my thoughts on what has become of these high-profile awards.
Other nationally known recognitions forge on without a president’s support—such as the Pulitzer Prize for outstanding journalism, literature, or music; and the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowships. In an even larger sense, communities around the country are recognizing people, organizations, and programs year-round, and there’s no shortage of local and state recognition and support for the arts during this National Arts & Humanities Month and throughout the year.
For instance, throughout September and early October, Andy Vick, executive director of the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region in Colorado Springs, secured eight proclamations from area municipalities that are recognizing the value of the arts and want to raise awareness for local initiatives taking place each October across the Pikes Peak region. Last week in Charlotte, North Carolina, Mayor Vi Lyles read a proclamation recognizing the month of October as National Arts & Humanities Month and the 60th Anniversary of the Arts & Science Council; and the same week, the Morris County Board of Freeholders issued an Arts and Humanities Month 2018 proclamation to Tom Werder, Executive Director of Morris Arts, and to Lynn Siebert, Director of Arts Participation & Communications for Morris Arts.
The lack of a presidential proclamation is not stopping hundreds of communities across the United States, where residents are being encouraged to explore new facets of the arts and humanities in their lives, and to begin a lifelong habit of active participation in the arts. However, for over thirty years, the extra push by presidents, Republican and Democrat, has been a high-visibility boost of national support to countless local stories, and to the honoring of local leaders. Coming from the White House, presidential proclamations and letters can be seen as a signal of what an administration views as important.
Earlier this month, Americans for the Arts and the Business Committee for the Arts recognized 10 U.S. companies, a business leader, and an arts and business partnership for their exceptional involvement in ensuring that the arts thrive in their communities, from providing the arts with significant financial and in-kind support, to incorporating meaningful arts-related programs into their employee, customer, and community relations activities. And next week, Americans for the Arts will host the National Arts Awards and recognize Mavis Staples, Ai Weiwei, Justin Peck, Ann Ziff, and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, for their deep commitment to the arts and extraordinary achievements.
Recognition isn’t restricted to October for our organization; for instance, in June, Americans for the Arts recognizes community arts leaders in multiple areas such as arts education, local arts agencies large and small, and public art. Throughout the year, we recognize public officials’ outstanding leadership in advancing the arts in their county or state. I think of what Congressman Leonard Lance (R-NJ) once said: “The way that the arts and the humanities flourish in this country is to make sure that we honor those distinguished citizens who have done so much either for the arts or the humanities.”
What often comes out of recognition is dialogue, vital to the larger conversation about the value of the arts. For instance, it might come as a surprise that the business AutoZone has been a champion of the arts and cultural initiatives and institutions in Memphis for decades, and commissioned Opera Memphis to create two iterations of “AutoZone: The Opera” for several of the company’s national conferences. This has sparked conversations about creativity and the role of the arts in our workplaces and in our lives, what we as citizens, businesses and the government can do, how we can effect change and improve policy, and how the arts can remain an integral part of our lives. Showcasing great work also demonstrates the value of the arts, builds relationships and allies within the community, and inspires ideas in other communities to start their own projects and programs.
You never know what difference some recognition might make. When I was in the eighth grade, I reluctantly entered a local essay contest with the prodding of Sister Andrena, my teacher. I won. I got some much-needed junior high school recognition and came away with a lifelong love of literature and writing and maybe even a career in the arts. It makes you wonder what business leaders, or philanthropists, or children for that matter, might be inspired to do in service to the arts or the broader community because of the arts, after being recognized for prior innovation or good work.
We may continue to wonder about the return of the National Medal of Arts and other national honors, but let’s for now applaud communities large and small that are securing arts proclamations, honoring public and private leaders who support the arts, advocating, and finding their own ways to recognize local leadership or programs. It is my wish that every town find a local arts hero or group to honor. Think about who you can recognize in your community. Together, let’s continue to elevate the arts locally.
Learn more about Americans for the Arts’ awards for arts achievement.