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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 02/18/2011

NEA proposes a new American Artists of the Year award

By Jacqueline Trescott

Yacub Addy, Ghanian drum master and 2010 NEA National Heritage Fellow.

The National Endowment for the Arts has proposed eliminating separate categories for its prestigous individual awards and rolling the honors into one category called NEA American Artists of the Year.

Up until now the honors were distributed in three categories: NEA Jazz Masters Fellowships, the National Heritage Fellowships and Opera Honors. NEA officials said the new award would cover more artistic categories.

"This is a conversation we've been having for over a year now as it simply seems correct to extend the NEA's honoring of artists to as full a spectrum as possible, including dancers, theater artists, other musicians, filmmakers and visual artists," according to a statement posted on the agency's Art Works blog Wednesday.

The awards have been a rare way for the federal government to salute artists who usually are not included in other programs. Jazz and opera artists are part of the mix of Grammy Awards, the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honors.

Expanding the pool of eligibility would diminish the chances of artists who are outside the mainstream, particularly the folk and traditional crafts artisans, who are carrying on specific work of their ethnic or geographic groups.

That would be a loss for the quiltmakers, the boatmakers and basketweavers, or musicians who never make a record but represent a unique musical style. "The criteria for valuing those traditions is different. It is also about excellence but these arts and traditions get to the heart of our American identity," said Julia Olin, the executive director of the National Council of the Traditional Arts.

The NEA statement said, "Our proposed NEA American Artists of the Year will still honor jazz, folk and traditional arts, and opera, including them as part of a fuller spectrum of American art forms and artists."

All three groups are given an honorium of $25,000. To date 358 people have been selected for the Heritage Fellows. The Jazz Masters was started in 1982, the same year the Heritage debuted, and 119 people have been honored. The Opera category only dates back to 2008 and has included 13 people

The request to change the way the awards are given is contained in the agency's 2012 budget request to Congress. Revisions to the NEA's legislation would be required. The agency said the three separate programs would be held this year.

By Jacqueline Trescott  | February 18, 2011; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Jacqueline Trescott, National Endowment for the Arts  | Tags:  Jazz Masters Fellowships, NEA American Artists of the Year, National Endowment for the Arts, National Heritage Fellowships, Opera Honors  
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As someone who was on the NEA-Folk Arts Panel in 1981 when we voted the very first Folk Arts Heritage Awards (they were given out in 1982), I’m concerned that collapsing this separate folk and traditional arts category into a single overarching arts category will result in fewer awards given out to folk and traditional artists. This award has been one of the best investments, over its nearly 30 year period, that NEA has made in sustaining an under-served and under-recognized category of arts and culture in the US–traditional arts. This award represents an ongoing, nearly 30-year conversation. I suggest that NEA continue its 1-year conversation, and do some serious studies in terms of impact, before deciding on this short-sighted course of action that threatens to reverse one of the NEA’s most cost-effective investments in artistic diversity and cultural sustainability.

Posted by: Jeff_Titon | February 19, 2011 8:53 AM | Report abuse

I don't think that cutting the National Heritage Fellowships to folk and traditional artists - or folding them into a "fuller spectrum" of artist awards - is anything to celebrate. The National Heritage honorees have been akin to Japan's "Living National Treasures," the highest exemplars of their traditional art forms and repositories of cultural and artistic wisdom. Advanced age is not a requirement. The National Heritage awards are particularly effective in highlighting some of the remarkable people who might not consider themselves artists, but whose artistic practice is of the highest ability and excellence. Even more important, these artists are ambassadors of their communities whose history and values are expressed through their art. Rather than individual inspiration and glory, National Heritage artists dedicate their work to preservation and living expression of the intangible cultural heritage of communities and groups. It’s hard to see how the achievements of folk and traditional artists would fit into a compendium of arts awards or how they would be adjudicated fairly. The unique character of the National Heritage awards, and the peerless body of winners since 1982 – itself a treasure trove of our country’s traditions - would be diluted and much less important. We already have the Kennedy Center Honors and that’s fine; NEA should keep the National Heritage Fellowships as a distinct set of awards that draws from and touches so many areas of America.

Posted by: AldaEaton | February 22, 2011 5:54 PM | Report abuse

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