Bluegrass legend Del McCoury was ecstatic when he was named a National Heritage Fellow last year. So when he heard that the National Endowment for the Arts was considering blending all the lifetime achievement awards into one, he was a little upset.
“I was honored to become a member,” McCoury said in a phone interview Monday. In this budget cycle, the NEA has proposed taking the Jazz Master Fellowships, the National Heritage Fellowships and the NEA Opera Honors and creating a new honorific called NEA American Artists of the Year.
McCoury sent out a letter to the hundreds of recipients of the Heritage awards, who include basketmakers, boatmakers, quilters, fiddlers and stonemasons. “It’s now particularly disturbing to hear,” about the plans, he wrote. “All of us must take immediate action to keep this from happening.”
McCoury, who has led the charge of a number of music-related issues, said he was concerned about the artisans who labor outside the media spotlight and that the Heritage award was one of the few they received.
“To put it in language we can all relate to, we are not Broadway stars, our get-togethers will more likely serve iced tea than champagne, and hanging out with most of us will not guarantee you an invitation to celebrity parties,” wrote McCoury.
McCoury and one of his strong allies, Nick Spitzer, the folklorist and producer, said that was not a direct dig at NEA chairman Rocco Landesman, a former Broadway producer, but they hoped he would listen. “I like Rocco and his intentions are good but this is ill-advised,” said Spitzer, a folklorist who has hosted the annual showcase for the fellows for 13 years. “The best way to teach Americans about their own cultures is to do it through the individual stories of artists.”
Spitzer says Landesman should use the practices of his past life to make the awards better. “I would say to Rocco as an adept Broadway producer, he could help us do something different with Heritage. Do something quiet in Washington and then have a tour. Let’s propose creating one program that would honor artists and then go to China with Del and the Treme Brass Band.”
The NEA proposal is still under consideration.
A statement from the NEA explained their goals: “Given the current fiscal reality, it would not be possible to create stand-alone ceremonies and fellowships for each of the disciplines the NEA currently funds, so in the last budget request the President submitted to Congress, the NEA proposed creating one program that would honor artists in all disciplines and would reflect the full scope of the agency’s work.”
The NEA, said a spokeswoman, is planning a meeting in the future about the plan for the awards with key leaders in the folk and traditional arts communities.
McCoury is invited.