Art Works Blog

America's All-Stars: A Salute to the U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts

June 22, 2012

U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts medallion. Photo by Robert Leslie

I confess that I have a job that I love. Each and every day my colleagues at YoungArts and I have the privilege of working to identify, recognize, and support America’s most talented young (high-school-aged) artists in the visual, literary, and performing arts. In the spirit of “every great artist was once someone small or starting out,” our organization gets to serve as that very launching pad.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones. From an early age, I was encouraged to pursue my artistic passions---in my case, this was music, specifically classical piano, and theater. Having the chance to take lessons and be exposed to excellent teachers and classes in Miami, at Interlochen and other places---as well as growing up with the influences of my own mother, Mira Lehr, who is a wonderfully accomplished visual artist---made an incredible difference to me in the ways that I approach my work and daily life. Growing up, I saw my mother spending most of her time in her art studio and I understood from a young age the need for hard work and perseverance for your passion in life and also how important artists are to our country's culture and well-being.

Over the last few days, America’s 141 U.S. Presidential Scholars, including the 20 U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts, were recognized in Washington, DC. This is the highest award granted to a graduating high school senior for academic, leadership, and civic achievements through a program established by President Johnson in 1964. Since that time, more than 6,000 individuals have been recognized---alumni range from a Pulitzer Prize winner to a Tony Award nominee; a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient to a National Poet Laureate; from the Governor of Indiana to Vice President Biden’s Chief of Staff to pioneers in climate science, energy policy, and Internet technology.

I am especially proud, though, that, since 1982, YoungArts has been the exclusive path to the U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts award. Each year we nominate up to 60 of our national finalists to the White House’s Commission on Presidential Scholars, and 20 students ultimately are named for the same achievements and character as the other Presidential scholars, but also for their artistic prowess. Each June, as they arrive in Washington to receive the medallion and recognition by the President of the United States at the White House, our Scholars in the Arts exhibit their works at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (visual and literary arts) and present a performance at the Kennedy Center (performing arts).

Over time, Scholars in the Arts have included Tony Award-nominated dancer and choreographer Desmond Richardson, American Ballet Theatre Executive Director Rachel Moore, novelist and National Book Award finalist Allegra Goodman, Grammy Award-nominated violinist Jennifer Koh, BRAVO’s Work of Art winner Abdi Farah, and OBIE Award-winning actress Donna Lynne Champlin.

And now we have ushered in another class of young artists into this prestigious family. They hail from eleven different states and represent nine artistic disciplines---cinematic arts, dance, jazz, music, photography, theater, visual arts, voice, and writing. They come from big cities and tiny communities. They plan to attend Duke, Juilliard, New York University, Stanford, MICA, University of Chicago, Savannah College of Art and Design, and others on the list of “America’s best.” They are America’s teenagers…ordinary and also extraordinary.

Their stories and inspirations are deeply personal and rooted in the threads of family stories and their communities. One Scholar immigrated to America from Venezuela, and pursuing her art has helped her understand her two cultures. Another Scholar grappled with the separation of his younger siblings after his mother was sent to prison and his father murdered. And another student from California has explored an understanding of her multi-ethic background (Japanese, Italian, and Norwegian) through her classical voice training.

As President Obama said in his video address to the Presidential Scholars at the Kennedy Center this past Monday night, “you are America’s all-stars.” These young people are 17 and 18 years old. They are articulate, brave, ready to follow their dreams, and are convinced they will make a difference. They are humbled, too, that their works are hanging or being performed where “real art” takes place. No matter, though, how many times I interact with such promising young artists---and how much that is a part of my day-to-day work ---they never fail to amaze me.

There is great hope for our country and American culture with these young artists and leaders stepping forward. I am hopeful that the recognition extended to them by YoungArts and the Presidential Scholars program will encourage them to pursue their passions and dreams. This is our gift to them. Their gift back will be their art which can bring communities together, inspire, and heal our world.

Watch for their names---I guarantee you will be seeing them again.

Want to hear more about the Presidential Scholars in the Arts? Keep an eye on our Facebook page and the Art Works blog in late July!

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