The National Medal of Arts, the highest award for contributions to the arts issued by the US government, will be presented for the first time since President Donald Trump took office three years ago—but without any visual artists among the honourees. This year’s recipients include the folk signer Alison Krauss, the actor Jon Voight, the philanthropist Sharon Percy Rockefeller, and the musicians of the US Military.
Announced by the president in conjunction with the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), the medals are considered one of America’s most prestigious cultural honours. They were first awarded in 1985 by President Ronald Reagan presented every year to significant painters, writers, actors, architects, dancers, musicians, and philanthropists. Trump is the first president to break with tradition since the medal’s creation, although that may be unsurprising given his repeated threats to defund the NEA — a directive which Congress has thrice far ignored. In 2018, Trump tapped Mary Anne Carter, a former staffer for the Republican Senator Rick Scott, to lead the agency. She has focussed primarily on expanding the NEA's funding of arts education and veteran therapy initiatives.
“The talent, dedication, and creativity of these recipients have made an enduring mark on the arts in America,” Carter says in statement about the arts medals, “and they now join a remarkable group of others honoured over the past decades.”
The NEA works with the National Council of the Arts to offer recommendations to the White House for the medals. According to The Atlantic, the council's current members are holdovers from the Bush and Obama administrations. (Trump’s four nominations to the council have not yet been confirmed by the Senate.) There was reportedly some surprise from the council when the administration announced its choices, and the final decisions did not match the committee’s recommendations.
Trump’s choices instead seem to reflect his purported affinity for pageantry, pandering, and patriotism. Voight has been an ardent supporter of the president since his 2016 election. In May, he tweeted a video message: “Let us stand with our president. Let us stand up for this truth: that President Trump is the greatest president since Abraham Lincoln.”
Rockefeller is the president and chief executive officer of WETA, a public broadcasting station in Washington, DC. She is also the board chair of the National Gallery of Art and serves on the board of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
When the National Medal of the Arts was established in 1985, seven of the twelve recipients had ties to the visual art world, and the inaugural winners included the artists Georgia O’Keeffe, Louise Nevelson and, oddly enough, Hallmark Cards. More recently, only one or two visual artists have been honoured every year. Artist awardees under the Obama administration included Jack Whitten, John Baldessari, and Ann Hamilton.