New selection process for Kennedy Center Honors is announced


The State Department dinner for The Kennedy Center Honors was held on Saturday Dec. 1, 2012. Clockwise, from top, are John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Anthony Plant of Led Zeppelin, David Letterman, Dustin Hoffman, Natalia Makarova and Buddy Guy. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
May 16, 2013

The Kennedy Center announced Thursday revisions to the selection process for the annual Kennedy Center Honors after a seven-month internal review of how artists are chosen for the annual awards ceremony.

The Kennedy Center hopes to bring greater transparency to a selection process that has been largely opaque in past years. Last year, some national Hispanic advocacy groups criticized the Honors’ selection process after noting that only two of the 186 honorees since 1978 were Hispanic.

A new six-person advisory committee will make recommendations to the Kennedy Center chairman, president and the producers of the televised broadcast. The center is also allowing the public to nominate individuals via its Web site who will be considered along with the recommendations made by the Artists Committee, a group of approximately 70 people who make recommendations via ballot each year.

The newly formed committee includes former honorees cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Chita Rivera, the dancer, singer and actress of Puerto Rican descent, and the only Hispanic woman to have received the Honors. Committee members will serve five-year terms and are tasked with choosing 10 to 20 candidates before five final honorees are selected by the executive committee. There are no quotas or changes to the criteria of the award, Kennedy Center spokesman John Dow said.

“This process diversifies the Artists Committee and brings more voices to the selection process, which can only be for the good,” said Michael M. Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center.

From the committee’s recommendations, Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein, Kaiser and producer George Stevens Jr. will propose multiple groups of five potential honorees that provide diversity among artistic disciplines for the upcoming 2013 Honors.

“Their job will be make sure there is balance across the disciplines so we don’t end up with five guitarists or five dancers,” Dow said.

Hispanic leaders and advocates were invited to the Kennedy Center throughout the process to offer suggestions on how to make the process more diverse. Among them were San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences’ president and chief executive, Gabriel Abaroa, and the president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Thomas A. Saenz.

“All those leaders came to the table, and they all shared ways to create systems of inclusion and how they had done it in their respective fields,” said Giselle Fernandez, a Kennedy Center trustee who served on the review committee. “No group or ethnicity wants to be awarded something to fulfill a quota; that’s not what this is about. This is about opening up access to a universe of talent that might not have had a pipeline to the table.”

To date, Rivera and Spanish tenor Placido Domingo are the only Hispanic artists to be given the award. The issue gained attention last year after Felix R. Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, pressed Kaiser on the lack of Hispanic honorees during a heated telephone call, resulting in Kaiser’s utterance of a profanity. Kaiser apologized and acknowledged the lack of transparency in the process, leading the Kennedy Center’s board of trustees to conduct a review of the selection process. Sanchez says that he’s not entirely satisfied with the changes.

“The changes at first blush appear to be very meritorious, but I don’t think the changes went far enough,” Sanchez said. “It still rests in the hands of the same people, who remain the principal deciders of the Honors nominees.”

The ceremony in December will be the 36th anniversary of the Honors. The Honors are bestowed upon living individuals who have achieved excellence in an artistic discipline — dance, music, theater, opera, television or film. The awards event is the Kennedy Center’s biggest fundraiser and is widely considered to be the most important one it holds each year.

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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