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Kennedy Center changes Honors process after Latino groups' outcry

May 17, 2013|By Mike Boehm
  • Chita Rivera receives an ovation at the 2002 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, with fellow winner James Earl Jones applauding and First Lady Laura Bush at far right. Rivera and Placido Domingo, in 2000, are the only Latino winners, out of more than 170 honorees since 1978.
Chita Rivera receives an ovation at the 2002 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony,… (Diana Walker / CBS )

After saluting just two Latino performers in 35 years with its Kennedy Center Honors awards, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts says it has revised the selection process to be more inclusive.

The changes were announced Thursday in a news release that didn’t mention that they were sparked by Latino groups' protests last year over the dearth of Latino honorees. Plácido Domingo in 2000 and Chita Rivera in 2002 have been the only ones, out of more than 170 winners since 1978.

The Kennedy Center did say in its announcement that it “is committed to bolstering both its track record on diversity and its relationship with the Hispanic community,” and will impanel a new Latino Advisory Committee that will meet quarterly with those goals in mind.

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The changes don’t go far enough, said Felix Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, which last September joined another Washington, D.C., organization,  National Hispanic  Leadership Agenda, in publicly complaining that the Kennedy Center Honors had ignored Latinos.

The main change is the creation of a six-member panel that will choose 10 to 20 finalists, somewhat circumscribing the authority of the small group that picks the winners. The final say will continue to rest with the Kennedy Center’s president and board chair – Michael Kaiser and David M. Rubinstein – together with the awards show production team headed by George Stevens Jr. and his son, Michael.

The elder Stevens is the founder of the American Film Institute, co-chairman of the Presidents’ Committee on the Arts and Humanities, and helped originate the Kennedy Center Honors. Winners are announced each September, with a December performance ceremony at the Kennedy Center that’s taped for a later television broadcast on CBS.

The changes are an improvement, Sanchez said, but don’t go far enough. Given the track record, he said, the group picking the winners should have been juggled, bringing in new producers with a proven record of inclusiveness.

“The 20 candidates or so will wind up in the hands of the same people who have made this decision in the past,” he said. “You still have the same three white males who are going to make that decision. If you keep doing the same thing, you’re going to get pretty near the same outcome.”

The Kennedy Center board’s 14-member executive committee retains final approval of the picks -- Sanchez considers it a rubber stamp. Giselle Fernandez, a Mexican American television journalist, is the only Latino on the presidentially appointed Kennedy Center board, which has 35 members. She’s on the executive committee and will serve on a new standing committee of the board tasked with overseeing the Kennedy Center Honors.

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“I am proud to be involved with an organization as forward-thinking as the Kennedy Center and hope this review becomes a model for other organizations around the country,” Fernandez said in the Kennedy Center's written announcement.

The Kennedy Center said its board conducted a seven-month review of the awards selection process, “with input from many members of the cultural community.”

For the first time, the Kennedy Center Honors will invite suggestions from the public, via a newly established submission form on the Kennedy Center Honors Web page. In the past, initial suggestions had been left to former honorees and an Artist Committee of about 70 members. They’ll continue to make suggestions, with the Artist Committee expanded  “to ensure the broadest representation of candidates.” Artist Committee members will serve five-year terms.

The new six-member Special Honors Advisory Committee, whose members will serve three-year terms, will sift through all the suggestions and pick the finalists. It’s made up of two former honorees (Rivera and Yo-Yo Ma), two artist committee members (Harolyn Blackwell and Damian Woetzel), and two members of the Kennedy Center board (Cappy McGarr and Elaine Wynn).

Sanchez said his group wasn’t asked for input on changes to the selection process. He said he’d been hoping for a clear acknowledgement of past neglect of Latino performers, but is hopeful that new pressures for inclusiveness will improve the results, despite what he sees as an insufficient structural change.

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