WHY ISN’T THE NATIONAL MEDAL OF ARTS CEREMONY ON TELEVISION?
Good morning everyone.
“And the beat goes on......................”
The National Medal of the Arts Television Show:
In 1999, when I was still the President of the California Assembly of Local Arts Agencies (now tragically defunct – but that’s a whole other story), I accepted an invitation to attend the National Medal of Arts ceremony in Washington D.C. I went because I had a meeting in D.C. with Harriet Fulbright, then Executive Director of the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities, about a project she and I were hatching to get then Vice-Chair of the Committee, Terry Semel – co-chair of Warner Brothers Pictures – to convene a Who’s Who of Hollywood to consider ways to support the arts (and that’s a whole other story too), and I went because the ceremony was at the White House and guests were to be treated to a private tour. I had never been to the White House and I thought this a good chance to cross that item off my bucket list. Alas the ceremony was scheduled for the Rose Garden, and it rained, and so it was moved to Constitution Hall. I haven’t yet been in the White House.
Still, it was an impressive event. That year the recipients included Aretha Franklin, folk singer Odetta, Norman Lear, designer Michael Graves, Maria Tallchief and the Julliard School. The ceremony was very simple, but in that simplicity there was a certain elegance; an awards show with class. The honorees sat on stage, and then President Clinton spoke about the achievements of each, a voice over narration provided a thumbnail sketch of each one’s artistic accomplishments, and then the President bestowed the award to each. None spoke. The whole thing took about an hour. As I watched the ceremony, I thought to myself that this would make a fantastic television show. Why not? There seemed to be an endless parade of award shows on television. Today it seems there aren’t a half dozen nights in the year when there isn’t some kind of awards show being broadcast. Television loves awards shows -- the big ones do really well in the ratings, and they are all relatively cheap to produce and easy to hype.
I noted the 2009 ceremony was held last week. This year’s crop of awardees included Bob Dylan and Clint Eastwood (disappointedly neither of whom showed up – and why was that? Perhaps if it had been on television they would have made it) along with Frank Stella, Michael Tilson Thomas, Rita Moreno and Jessye Norman among others. The awards frequently include arts patrons and even organizations (this year including the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the American Ballet Theater), and that’s one of the things about these awards that impressed me - a mix of celebrity names and the less famous (or at least not as well known) nonprofit artists and patrons and arts organizations. It is really a celebration of art in America. Watching the Oscar telecast last night, got me thinking again, why isn’t the National Medal of the Arts presentation a television show? The only real awards show we in the arts have is the Kennedy Center Honors – singling out lifetime achievements of the same mix of the famous and the less famous – but all artists of distinction. The Medal of Arts is special – it’s this country’s highest honor for artists – bestowed on behalf of a proud and grateful nation. This show ought to be on television.
We talk all the time about the lack of media attention we get that drives home the importance and the value of the arts. All of the awards shows on television –from the Oscars and Grammys and Emmys to the myriad of other awards shows that champion the arts – really champion only popular entertainment and entertainers (many of whom are truly artists – don’t get me wrong), but the celebration is really of “celebrity” as much, if not more, than “art”.
What a wonderful show the National Medal of Arts would make, even without the Red Carpet – so obligatory now to all award shows (America seems to care more about what honorees wear than why they are being honored). Still all the essentials of good television (read – ratings) are present: glamour, prestige, celebrity, stellar artistic achievement, the President of the United States, the White House as backdrop, names in the audience (including political big wigs who might fall all over themselves to be seen and even some foreign dignitaries), thumbnail visual highlights.
It would be an easy show to produce. You could create a very interesting and captivating two+ minute video piece on each one – charting their rise and accomplishments, showcasing their creative performances and works -- with a voice over narration by someone with a great (and recognizable) voice like Morgan Freeman, or Maya Angelou or even Tom Hanks. You could even offer small mini-grants (and probably get some corporate sponsor to pick up the tab) and solicit talented working artists to create those videos – and those might turn out to be mini works of art in their own right – an interesting experiment – a sort of two minute video twitter. The President could make whatever introductory remarks he might deem appropriate for each honoree, and each recipient could be allowed a couple of minutes of acceptance remarks. It would be refreshing to hear artists talk about their art rather than thanking their agents. The whole thing could be relatively fast paced. There are all kinds of promotion angles and opportunities to really ramp up media attention. It would complement the Kennedy Center Honors, and in the same way demonstrate the value the nation places on the arts and artistic achievement. It would send the message that the arts encompass more than Hollywood – and feature all artists portrayed as equally important – a key message to send to young people.
It would be a splendid opportunity, I think, to elevate and exalt the arts – and, because the honorees are so varied, it would have the potential of appealing to a wide audience. Past recipients have included such a stellar and representative sampling as: Les Paul, Dolly Parton, Robert Duval, Buddy Guy, Tommy Tune, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Twyla Tharp, Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Yo Yo Ma, Johnny Cash, Itzhak Perlman, I.M. Pei, Saul Bellow, BB King, Ray Charles, Bella Lewitskiy, Cales Oldenberg, Mikhail Baryshnikov, jazz great Benny Carter, Harold Prince, Barbara Streisand, Frank Gehry, Robert Redford, Tito Puente, Maurice Sendak, Wayne Thiebaud, Ray Bradbury, Gregory Peck, Richard Diebenkorn, Gene Kelley, Roy Lichtenstein, Cab Calloway, Paul Taylor, Beverly Sills, Jasper Johns – and such supporters and patrons as the Lila Wallace Readers Digest Fund and the Dayton Hudson Corporate Fund – to name but just a few. How’s that for an “A” list?
We need more media coverage of our triumphs if we are to successfully make the case for support for our value. Here is a golden opportunity. I even have a suggestion for a producer for the show – long time, frequent Oscars telecast producer and nonprofit arts theater stalwart – Gil Cates.
This might be a project which NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman – with his theatrical experience, showmanship acumen and network of contacts could put together. Rocco, are you listening? Please give this kind of effort your consideration. I think it’s an idea with merit. We really desperately need more media attention. Thanks.
I think there are any number of ways we might convince television that shows involving the arts (and not just Hollywood arts – but not to exclude them either - as we need more bridges to Hollywood anyway) would make good television (again read ratings). Like it or not, television coverage often has the effect of legitimizing value in the public’s mind. And the more we can get ourselves in the mainstream media and get people (especially younger generations) to see that the wider society champions all the arts – the better off we might be; the easier to make our case. I have a couple of other ideas for television shows that feature the arts that I will share with you in a future blog.
NOTE: Beginning with this blog I am going to try, from time to time, to include links to some artistic performances that are just on the cusp of more popular entertainment. I include them for your enjoyment as a break from the daily grind, and as a way to showcase the changing nature of how art is produced and accessed. Here are two truly outstanding YouTube clips I know you will enjoy and which, though not of well known performers, are extraordinarily artistic:
The first has been on YouTube only a week or so and is already a phenom – garnering over 1.25 million plays. Who says the unknown artist isn’t commercial? Watch the YouTube alternative “We Are The World for Haiti” -- a basically amateur version – 57 unknown singers who are quite talented. Some are budding professionals on their way up. But all are relatively unknown still. (You can click on the screen for any one of these singers and go to their website to hear and learn more.) What a great project – put together by Lisa Lavie – one the 57 singers and one of the most talented. She is a pioneer in using the web for getting her music out to the world.
The second is a performance by Jake Shimabukuro - who played the TED Conference this year – an incredible virtuoso performance of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody on the Ukulele – yes the Ukulele. Watch it – you won’t believe what he can do. So far 38 million people have watched it. Probably more people than have seen all the theater, dance and music performances in a year. And probably as many people as watched the Oscars last night. These two online performances are in many ways the future of the arts. But that too is a whole other story.
Have a great week.