During her first meeting as an appointee to the National Council on the Arts in March, Walker director Olgo Viso had the privilege of nominating recipients for the 2014 National Medal of the Arts. “It was an invigorating and inspiring discussion about what qualifies as excellence in American culture across the artistic disciplines,” she told us. On Monday, Viso was present in the White House as President Obama awarded 2013’s edition of the prize to 11 artists and one organization. Representing a diversity of disciplines and aesthetics, those honored ranged from singer Linda Ronstadt to architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, author Maxine Hong Kingston to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Two honorees have especially deep ties to the Walker: choreographer Bill T. Jones and sculptor James Turrell. Jones’ relationship with the Walker spans nearly 35 years, from the world-premiere performance of Break (with Maria Cheng) in 1981 to a series of Walker-commissioned works, from The Promised Land (1990) and Still/Here (1994)—which sparked heated debate after New Yorker critic Arlene Croce dubbed it “victim art“—to 2012’s Story/Time. His work and creative process was also showcased in the 1998 cross-disciplinary exhibition Art Performs Life: Merce Cunningham/Meredith Monk/Bill T. Jones. Turrell is best known for the Roden Crater, his ongoing project to turn an inactive volcano crater in Arizona into an immersive environment for experiencing natural shifts in light. Similar ideas guided his Sky Pesher, an underground sky-viewing chamber commissioned by the Walker and realized on our hillside in 2005.
Viso attended Monday’s ceremony with husband and artist Cameron Gainer, Ranee Ramaswamy, founder of Minneapolis-based Ragamala Dance and a member of the National Council on the Arts, and her daughter Aparna, Ragamala’s co-director. “It was a pleasure to witness this moving ceremony to hear President Obama so eloquently and passionately affirm the importance of the arts and artists in civic life and to acknowledge the need for provocative artists like Bill T. Jones in society,” says Viso. “It was also fun to hear him admit that he had a ‘crush’ on Linda Ronstadt ‘back in the day’!”