Broadway and classical icon Audra McDonald and minimalist composer Philip Glass were among the 12 recipients of the 2015 National Medal of Arts which were awarded in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House this morning. Honoring artists and arts patrons, the award was first established by Congress in 1984 with the National Endowment for the Arts’ serving as the selection committee.
The 45-minute ceremony, which also included the awarding of the National Medal of Humanities, was presided over by a good-humored President Obama who praised the honorees for “tak[ing] a piece of this big, bold, energetic country, reshap[ing] it, and shar[ing] it with us.”
Philip Glass is well-known to opera and classical music fans for his symphonic works and operas, such as Satyagraha and Einstein on the Beach. In his opening remarks, Obama praised Glass’ music (though none of it made his most recent playlist) and called it “full of contradictions that cross both genres and cultures.” Noting Glass’ radical composition style, he hearkened back to his 2008 campaign campaign rhetoric which emphasized change; “Change isn’t easy,” Obama said, “but Philip Glass has shown us that change can be beautiful.”
In a slight snafu that left her citation out of the lineup, Audra McDonald, who is several months pregnant, was the last to be acknowledged in the alphabetical awarding of the medals. “I’m glad Audra’s a good friend of mine,” an off-the-cuff Obama added, “so that they kind of forgot her citation, I think she’ll forgive me.”
Other honorees of the morning included filmmaker Mel Brooks, author Sandra Cisneros, NPR Fresh Air interviewer Terry Gross, and author Ron Chernow whose biography of Alexander Hamilton was adapted into Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s musical Hamilton. Actor Morgan Freeman was also honored, but did not attend; “He’s undoubtedly somewhere playing a black president!” Obama joked.
As honorees left for the following reception, the room was abuzz with talk about how the arts in this country might fare after the Obama Presidency comes to an end. While one could hardly call the arts a focus of Obama’s time in office, he has undeniably done much to give the arts, music, especially, a national platform. In a way, this is truly the end of an era for high-profile arts in the White House as Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton‘s arts policies prioritize arts education in schools and Republican candidate Donald Trump has said little about any arts legislation or funding he might enact if elected.
For a full list of honorees, please see here.
All photos by Opera Teen