WASHINGTON — Saying they "crowned the nation's greatness with grace," President Reagan has awarded the National Medal of Arts--this country's closest thing to knighthood--to 12 prominent artists and patrons at the White House.
In the second year the medals have been bestowed, the recipients were a cross section of the arts' elder statesmen: opera singer Marian Anderson; film director Frank Capra; composer Aaron Copland; painter Willem de Kooning; choreographer Agnes de Mille; patrons Dominique de Menil, the Exxon Corp. and Seymour Knox; actress Eva Le Gallienne; folklorist Alan Lomax; critic Lewis Mumford; and author Eudora Welty.
A Great Honor
Emerging from the White House in a wheelchair, De Mille, 80, said "of course" the medal was a great honor, after a career that emerged from "15 years of unbroken failure."
Remembered for her ballet, Broadway performances and choreography of another medal winner's work, Copland's "Rodeo," De Mille recalled the frustration of her early years.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 17, 1986 Home Edition View Part 5 Page 8 Column 4 View Desk 2 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Due to incorrect information supplied by the National Endowment for the Arts, a Times article on Wednesday erroneously stated that National Medal of Art winner Agnes de Mille attended USC. The dancer and choreographer graduated from UCLA with a degree in English in 1926 and is in fact one of only two women ever to be honored as alumna of the year, the other being entertainer Carol Burnett. De Mille was so honored in 1953.
"I've learned how to not be depressed to the point of committing suicide. I never thought about (receiving an award at) the White House. I thought about getting through the day and doing a good job. And it was."
De Mille, who grew up in Los Angeles and attended USC, was one of only six individual winners well enough to travel to Washington to receive the award in person at a White House luncheon in the East Room Monday. Reagan, assisted by First Lady Nancy Reagan in handing out the awards, said the purpose of the event was to "celebrate 12 rich contributions to American art." He added, " . . . And in a wider sense, we celebrate American culture itself, the culture of liberty, the culture in which artists are free to be true to themselves."
Anderson, 84, is the contralto who is remembered as much for her civil rights activities as for her soaring voice. Anderson performed a legendary 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial after she had been barred from nearby Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution because she was black. In 1955, at age 53, she opened the Metropolitan Opera to blacks. Anderson sent her cousin, Sandra Grymes, to accept her medal.
Capra, 89, won three Academy Awards for best direction of the classic Hollywood films "It Happened One Night," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and "You Can't Take It With You." Yet he is probably just as admired for the movies "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
Capra was unable to leave his Palm Springs home. Capra's son, Tom, who accepted the award, said his father "feels really excited about this. He feels that film itself is a purely American art form.
"Although he's not real well and not able to move about--he's had a few strokes--he certainly is aware of what's going on and is quite proud of it."
Copland, 85, was praised by Nancy Reagan as the "paramount American composer." He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1944, an Oscar in 1950 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964 for his work spanning stage, film and television. Among his best known works are "El Salon Mexico," "Lincoln Portrait," "Billy the Kid," "Rodeo" and "Appalachian Spring." Copland was not able to attend the ceremony.
De Kooning, Mrs. Reagan said, "influenced all modern painting," creating what were then controversial abstract-expressionist paintings of women. His paintings, which hang in museums all over the world, greatly influenced other artists of the abstract-expressionist movement. His wife, Elaine, accepted his award for him.
Patron De Menil is considered the primary force behind the "renaissance of the arts in Houston," Mrs. Reagan said. De Menil and her late husband, John, amassed one of the world's great privately owned art collections over a 40-year period. A museum has been built to house it, scheduled to open in Houston this fall.
The De Menils have organized and financed numerous exhibitions in the United States and Europe. De Menil collected her award, a four-inch-diameter sterling silver medal, and left quickly before reporters could talk with her.
The Exxon Corp. was honored for its funding of the arts, particularly the public television series "Great Performances." This award carried a touch of irony as Exxon, hurt by falling oil prices, announced just last month that it has decided to cut back funding on "Great Performances," the centerpiece of the artistic patronage for which it was being honored.
"It's a reflection of what's going on in the oil business," said Jack Clarke, the senior vice president who accepted the award. "We're still going to be involved on a significant level."
Knox, the 88-year-old arts patron from Buffalo, established the Seymour Knox Foundation, which has provided the Albright-Knox Art Gallery with more than 600 works of art and a new wing.
Knox--known by the nickname Shorty, which he acquired at Yale--said he was surprised by all the attention paid the winners and pronounced the whole affair "wonderful."