Photographs by Carol Ross Joynt.
The ceremony Monday afternoon at the White House had dual purposes. It was to present medals to esteemed individuals who have accomplished great things in the arts and humanities, including household names such as Al Pacino and Mel Tillis. It was also a chance for President Obama to promise his continued dedication to these fields. “As long as I’m President, I intend to make sure they are a priority,” he said. And then whose arms shot up high in the air to applaud and take his picture? Sarah Jessica Parker, seated off to his right, as eager as any fan. And while most of the attention was on the President, a lot of it was on her, too.
Parker was in the audience as a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, joining First Lady Michelle Obama, Jill Biden, and other luminaries such as artist Chuck Close, actor John Lithgow, actress Alfre Woodard, George Stevens Jr., broadcasting executive Ken Solomon, dancer Damian Woetzel, and the committee’s executive director, Rachel Goslins.
Parker wore a sleeveless silk dress of colored dots on a black background and over it a coat of cream bouclé with bits of rhinestone and gold and lacy appliqués, along with a bright pink scarf. When asked who designed her outfit, she said with a laugh, “Oh, this is something old. I just grabbed it. I don’t even know who did the dress, but it’s vintage. The coat is Mr. [Oscar] de la Renta.” Of her fuchsia stilettos (which she wore with bare legs), she looked at them and shrugged.
“Michelle and I love this event,” the President said. “It’s something we look forward to every year, because it’s a moment when America pays tribute to extraordinary men and women who have excelled in the arts and humanities and who along the way have made an indelible mark on American culture.” He continued, “We honor your talents, your careers, and your remarkable contributions to this country.”
One by one, the honorees took the stage to receive a large medal dangling from a purple or red silk ribbon, which the President placed around their necks. In addition to Pacino and Tillis, the recipients of the National Medal of Arts included artist Will Barnet, former US poet laureate Rita Dove, Pulitzer Foundation founder Emily Rauh Pulitzer, sculptor Martin Puryear, the USO, and pianist André Watts, who could not make the ceremony due to a concert in Salt Lake City.
The recipients of the National Humanities Medal were philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, poet John Ashbery, historian Robert Darnton, writer Andrew Delbanco, pianist Charles Rosen, historian Teofilo F. Ruiz, scholar Ramón Saldívar, public policy philosopher Amartya Sen, and National History Day.
While each honoree got applause, the loudest was for Pacino. The 71-year-old Oscar winner, who donned a tuxedo for the occasion, said at the reception after the medal ceremony that he was humbled by the “gravitas” of the occasion. Compared with a lot of the events he attends, where he said it’s always the same people, he found the White House ceremony “disparate” and “very real” and “authentic.” At the reception, the honorees were entertained with a buffet, bars, and music from the Marine Band.