On Wednesday night, the White House announced that the Washington Performing Arts Society is among the recipients of the 2012 National Medal of the Arts -- for, according to the citation, “bringing world-class performances to our Nation’s capital.”
“From concert-hall premieres to in-school workshops, WPAS has drawn renowned artists to the Washington community and inspired generations of young performers to follow their passions,” the citation continues, possibly slightly hazy on the use of “premiere” (though WPAS has certainly presented a number of them), but showing a good spirit.
President Obama will award the medal in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday, July 10th.
The National Medal for the Arts is this country’s highest national award for artists and supporters of the arts. It’s been awarded annually since 1985. While a number of prominent arts patrons, including large corporations, have been honored in the past, the medal has only been awarded a handful of times to a presenting organization, including Young Audiences, the Steppenwolf Theater Company, the University of Idaho’s Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival, and the dance festival Jacob’s Pillow. WPAS appears to be the first classical music presenter to be so honored.
Renée Fleming, the soprano, is among the other honorees, “for her contributions to American music.” The citation notes her “adventurous repertoire spanning opera and the classical tradition to jazz and contemporary pop.” The other musicians honored this year are Herb Alpert and Allen Toussaint. The artist Ellsworth Kelly, playwright Tony Kushner, director George Lucas, and comedian/actress Elaine May are also among the 12 honorees.
The medal comes at a time of change for WPAS, which recently hired a new president and CEO: Jenny Bilfield took over in April after the 10-year tenure of Neale Perl. Since Bilfield has not yet had time to put her own stamp on the organization, the award reflects the achievements of Perl’s administration, during which time WPAS considerably ramped up its educational activities and presented a lot of big names and a lot of names on their way to becoming big.
Edited to add: “This honor is indescribably poignant for an organization that has dedicated itself to the arts for 48 years,” Bilfield said in an e-mail statement. “The students, teachers, artists, audiences, and supporters who have contributed to the strength and reach of our arts education programs and performances stand shoulder-to-shoulder in sharing in this distinction. I have always had deep respect for the vision and work of my predecessors, founder Patrick Hayes, Doug Wheeler, and Neale Perl. It is a privilege to work with WPAS’s extraordinary board and staff to chart our organization’s future.”