Today, as I reported last week, the Washington Performing Arts Society, Renee Fleming, Ellsworth Kelly, Herb Alpert and a group of other notables are receiving the National Medal of Arts from President Obama at the White House.

These medals are one of a number of honors that, when awarded, cause us to question their merits. On what basis is one individual, one institution honored over another? The National Medal of Arts was initially conceived to honor artists and patrons; every year, a big donor or corporation has been among the honorees (Texaco, Sara Lee, Armand Hammer). Adding presenting organizations has been a later and somewhat haphazard development: it doesn’t happen every year.

There are two schools of thought on awards. One is that we should hold award-givers accountable, expecting some sense of an overview of the field and a hierarchical system that honors the most deserving first. An example is the composer John Adams, whose reaction to winning the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for music was to point out, somewhat polemically, how many equally worthy and older composers the prize had historically overlooked. The other is that we should not rock the boat too much and be grateful for every form of national or significant recognition that the arts can get. After all, the Pulitzer board doesn’t have to award a prize for music at all, and a lot of people are perpetually nervous that they will realize this, and stop giving it.

Above: This WPAS video from 2011 spotlights the education and outreach programs that the organization — like many other classical music organizations across the country — is increasingly making a part of its mission.

But music prizes, in particular, seem to pose something of a challenge for award-givers. The people with the most knowledge of the field are not necessarily those with a conduit to the awards -- take the Pulitzers, where a qualified jury makes the initial selection and recommends up to three works, but a board of non-musicians makes the final call on who wins the prize. The MacArthur Awards are always laudably eager to find suitable awardees in the music field, but it seems to be harder than finding nominations in the visual and literary arts. Then you have things like the Grammys, which are the result of a popular vote by a sketchily-informed group of voters, few of whom can possibly be conversant in all of the various forms of music the Grammys seek to honor.

When the NEA introduced the National Opera Honors in 2008, a short-lived attempt to create a national operatic hall of fame, I asked what the point was: most of the honorees had already been abundantly awarded (several, like Leontyne Price, with the National Medal of Arts). Within a year or two, I began to see the point: it was a good thing for significant artists, many of them past their active years, to be recognized by the nation for significant achievements. This makes me, perhaps, less judgmental about awards than I once was, particularly presidential ones; our federal government gives relatively little to the arts, and gestures actually do mean a lot.

All lists -- be it “best of” lists or groups of award-winners -- naturally reflect the biases and experience of the list-makers. In the case of awards, it may be especially hard to be comprehensive. But granting this award to the Washington Performing Arts Society does seem to reflect a local focus on the part of the NEA (which selects the honorees). As I said to Marc Fisher, who wrote about the awards in today’s Post, it’s otherwise hard to explain how this presenter was awarded before Carnegie Hall, or Lincoln Center, both of which have arguably rendered longer service to the arts. Of course, there could be a bias toward smaller organizations to whom an award like this could make a greater difference; in the past, the medal has gone to Jacob’s Pillow, the dance festival in Massachussetts. WPAS is certainly smaller than Carnegie Hall, but -- at this point -- a lot less funky than Jacob’s Pillow, or than some of the other more or less “classical” musicians who have been getting awards recently. It still represents a classical-music old guard, although there are signs that it would like to change this.

Indeed, the timing of this medal is notable for WPAS. The citation’s somewhat anodyne wording (“for bringing world-class performances to our Nation’s [sic] capital”) implies, with its references to in-school workshops and inspiring “generations of young performers to follow their passions,” recognition of the organization’s achievements in education, which has been one of its most notable developments in the last few years. But the organization itself evidently felt it needed an overhaul enough that it got rid of its former president, Neale Perl, and hired its current one, Jenny Bilfield, to bring in a new perspective -- in part because, to some concert-goers (including this one), WPAS seemed to be growing stagnant. There has to be more to arts presentation in 2013 than simply offering one big name after another, and one up-and-coming name after another: the artists themselves are often eager to showcase new projects or try new ideas, if only they are asked.

As it is, the medal -- technically awarded for 2012 -- rewards a status quo that the organization itself thought it was time to move past. But on the other hand, WPAS is a small organization that’s done a lot of good in Washington in its 48 years of existence. The award can be taken as a recognition of its entire history, from its dynamic founder, the impresario Pat Hayes, through the president emeritus Doug Wheeler, who continues to play a role. It’s certainly a morale-booster for the current adminstration during a period of transition. And, hey, the government is recognizing classical music. This has got to be a good thing. Maybe it will give a medal to the Kennedy Center next.


Obama takes stand in culture wars with arts, humanities awards