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Another Year Passes Without National Medal of Arts Awards

  • March 05, 2019 12:40

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Will Barnet, Self-Portrait, 1981, was part of the exhibition "Will Barnet at 100" – the artist’s first New York museum retrospective – at the National Academy Museum on Sept. 16-Dec. 31, 2011. Barnet received a 2011 National Medal of Arts on Feb. 13, 2012
National Academy Museum
Financier, arts patron and philanthropist Roy Neuberger receiving the National Medal of Arts from US President George W. Bush in 2007. Neuberger gave much of his art collection to public institutions, including works by Milton Avery, Stuart Davis, Alexander Calder, Jackson Pollock, Georgia O'Keeffe and Edward Hopper.
The U.S. Department of State's Art in Embassies program installed Courtney Mattison's “Confluence (Our Changing Seas V)” (2018) at the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia in 2018. It is glazed stoneware + porcelain, 846 x 570 x 50 cm.
photograph by Amanda Brooks

The White House's prestigious annual recognition of American artists, the National Medal of Arts awards, have not been announced or given since President Trump took office in January 2017. This represents the longest gap between ceremonies since the founding of the award in 1985.

The arts have had a tenuous relationship with the current administration, including the fate of the National Endowment for the Arts which has been put into jeopardy with de-funding threats. The New York Times also noted that Trump eliminated the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities after 16 members resigned in protest, citing his reaction to the white nationalist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va. 

President Obama held the last White House ceremony to award the arts and humanities medals in September 2016 when the 2015 medals were given. 

Among the visual artists who have been recipients, luminaries include Georgia O'Keeffe, Will Barnet, Frank Stella, Martin Puryear, Ellsworth Kelly, James Turrell, John Baldessari, Ann Hamilton, Jack Whitten and many others.

The award is given to individuals or groups who “…are deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the United States.”

The U.S. State Dept. last gave International Medal of Arts awards on January 12, 2017, before Trump took office, recognizing artists Wolf Kahn, Rachel Whiteread, Pat Steir, Nick Cave, Jenny Holzer, and Imran Qureshi. These awards note international artists' contributions to the State Dept.'s Art in Embassies program and to cultural diplomacy.

One recent project of this State Dept. program was marine biologist Courtney Mattison's Confluence (Our Changing Seas V), a porcelain coral arrangement produced for the US Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 2018. The piece has a striking ocean conservation theme, seemingly running counter to the Trump administration's denial of human-influenced climate change.

As described by Colossal: Mattison's "site-specific work features a vibrant cluster of coral structures at its center which turn stark white the further they are placed from the installation’s core. This shifting gradient references the rapid devastation caused to reefs as temperature levels rise and force corals to lose their colorful algae."

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