In a ceremony noted for charm instead of controversy, President and Mrs. Bush yesterday honored 13 American artists and patrons for their contributions that have helped move the United States from an industrial nation to "one of the cultural giants of the world."

The president also used the occasion to reiterate his support for the embattled National Endowment for the Arts chairman, who assisted him in the awards presentation.

"I'm very happy to have John Frohnmayer here," said Bush. "As a matter of fact, I'm very happy to have him heading the National Endowment for the Arts."

Bush made his remarks at the sixth annual presentation of the National Medal of Arts at the White House.

"Taken together, today's honorees represent an apparently inexhaustible reserve of creativity, one that's often defied categorization," said Bush.

This year's honorees included nine artists who were cited for their bodies of work: Broadway director George Abbott; actor Hume Cronyn, who also accepted a medal for his wife, Jessica Tandy, who was unable to attend the ceremony; choreographer Merce Cunningham; painter Jasper Johns; musician B.B. King; painter Jacob Lawrence; landscape architect Ian McHarg; and opera star Beverly Sills.

Four patrons were also awarded medals for their support of the arts: Washingtonian David Lloyd Kreeger, who recently resigned from the board of directors of the Corcoran Gallery of Art; Harris and Carroll Masterson of Houston; and Southwestern Bell Corp., which received the award for corporate sponsorship.

Bush noted that last year's presentation ceremony, held a week before Thanksgiving, was overshadowed by a photo opportunity with the national turkey. "We've done a little better on the scheduling this year, Helsinki notwithstanding," he said.

What the president failed to mention was the controversy that clouded last year's awards. Composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein surprised the White House and the arts community when he announced that he was refusing the medal to protest the NEA's cancellation of a $10,000 grant to a New York art gallery. Although the grant decision was later reversed, Bernstein did not attend the award ceremony and luncheon with the other honorees and issued a statement critical of the NEA chairman's decision.

The medals are awarded annually to Americans for outstanding contributions to the arts. Although the final winners are determined by the White House, nominations and recommendations come from the NEA.

This year's brief presentation was free of any hint of controversy. The president and Mrs. Bush, animated and apparently rested despite their whirlwind trip to Helsinki, greeted each honoree on a raised stage, presented the silver medal and posed for the cameras. The honorees did not make any public comments and after the ceremony were whisked to the State Dining Room, where the president gave a luncheon for them.

Earlier in his remarks, the president admitted to one frustration. "I think Barbara Bush is secretly in love with Hume Cronyn."

Mrs. Bush smiled and nodded in agreement as Cronyn stood up and took a small bow to the applause of the approximately 100 guests in the East Room. It was understandable, then, that Cronyn felt emboldened enough to plant a kiss on Mrs. Bush's cheek as he accepted his award.

Even the president smiled.