Judith Baca, the Chicana artist, educator and arts administrator who may be best known for her sprawling community mural project The Great Wall of Los Angeles—begun in the 1970s, still in process and, at 2,754ft, considered the longest mural in the word—is one of 12 cultural figures who will receive the National Medal of Arts from US President Joseph Biden and First Lady Jill Biden in today (21 March) at the White House.
Other honourees receiving National Medals of Arts alongside Baca on Tuesday include actor, writer and producer Mindy Kaling, music legends Gladys Knight and Bruce Springsteen, and comedian Julia Louis-Dreyfus—known, among other things, for playing a hapless US Vice-President on the HBO comedy Veep (her late father, William Louis-Dreyfus, was also a major art collector).
“We are a better nation because of their contributions,” National Endowment for the Arts chairperson Maria Rosario Jackson said in a statement. “Their work helps us see the world in different ways. It inspires us to reach our full potential and recognise our common humanity. I join the President in congratulating and thanking them.”
During the same ceremony, the equivalent awards overseen by the National Endowment for the Humanities will be given out. The National Humanities Medals recipients this year include activist, civil rights lawyer and Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson as well as pop superstar and influential photography collector Elton John (who will not attend the ceremony).
This will be the first in-person National Medals of Arts ceremony of Biden’s presidency. Due to pandemic disruptions, the medals were last awarded in January 2021. In late 2019, nearly three years into his presidency, then President Donald Trump awarded the medals for the first time, though no visual artists were among that cohort, which included the folk signer Alison Krauss, philanthropist Sharon Percy Rockefeller and the actor and outspoken Trump supporter Jon Voigt.
Past artist recipients of the National Medal of Arts include Jack Whitten (in 2015), John Baldessari and Ann Hamilton (in 2014), James Turrell (in 2013), Ellsworth Kelly (in 2012), Martin Puryear (in 2011), Mark di Suvero (in 2010), Maya Lin and Frank Stella (in 2009) and George Tooker and Andrew Wyeth (in 2007).
Last year, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles opened an exhibition devoted to Baca's portable World Wall: A Vision of the Future Without Fear (1990). Meanwhile, her Great Wall of Los Angeles depicts the history of California, privileging Indigenous and non-white figures and narratives, with sections devoted to events like the arrival of the Spanish explorer Portillo in 1769, the Dust Bowl and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, as well as influential figures like the Oglala Lakota athlete Billy Mills and the 19th century civil rights activist Mary Ellen Pleasant. She began to paint it with local students in the mid-1970s along the Tujungo Wash Drainage Canal of the Los Angeles River.
"I grew up by the Los Angeles River, and I saw it turned to concrete… it’s very personal to me,” Baca told The Art Newspaper in 2018, when the mural was featured as part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA. “I painted this because I couldn’t blow it up. I didn’t want to go to prison."