NEA Arts Magazine

NEA ARTS Honoring Our Nation's Cultural Heritage

NEA National Heritage Fellowship Program

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Barry Bergey with Mavis Staples

Folk and Traditional Arts Director Barry Bergey with 2006 NEA National Heritage Fellow Mavis Staples at the awards ceremony and concert rehearsal at theMusic Center at Strathmore. Photo by Tom Pich.

"The class of 2006." That's the way Mavis Staples described herself and the other distinguished recipients of our nation's highest form of federal recognition of folk and traditional artists, the NEA National Heritage Fellowships. In September 2006, a group of 11 musicians, craftspeople, dancers, storytellers, and cultural conservators came to Washington, DC to be honored for their lifetimes of commitment to creative excellence and cultural heritage. Admission to this class is no small accomplishment. These artists joined such luminaries as B.B. King, Bill Monroe, Ali Akbar Khan, Michael Flatley, and Shirley Caesar as honorees.

Each year a panel of experts spends four days discussing thousands of pages of materials and reviewing hundreds of media samples supporting the more than 200 nominations received from the American public.

In the end, a slate is recommended to the National Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts Chairman for final approval.

The process culminates in September with a banquet in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress, an awards ceremony on Capitol Hill, and a public concert. This year the concert was held for the first time at the new Music Center at Strathmore in nearby Bethesda, Maryland.

The events in 2006 marked the 25th year that these fellowships were awarded, and more than 325 artists and groups have now been recognized as NEA National Heritage Fellows. With the generous support of Darden Restaurants and Darden Restaurants Foundation, we plan to celebrate the 25th anniversary in 2007–8 with special concerts, tours, exhibitions, publications, and media programs around the country.

The cumulative history of the NEA National Heritage Fellowships provides a striking portrait of our nation. Bess Lomax Hawes, the NEA Folk Arts Director who conceived and initiated the program, perhaps said it best: "Of all the activities assisted by the Folk Arts Program, these fellowships are among the most appreciated and applauded, perhaps because they present to Americans a vision of themselves and of their country, a vision somewhat idealized but profoundly longed for and so, in significant ways, profoundly true."

Barry Bergey
Director, Folk and Traditional Art