NEA Awards National Heritage Grants

Posted by on Jun 30, 2020 in People and Culture

Every year, the National Endowment for the Arts, or NEA, awards prestigious grants to U.S. artists. Beginning in the 1980s, the organization broadened their definition of what they consider art by establishing the National Heritage fellowship program, which awards $25,000 grants for lifetime achievements by folk and traditional artists. Here, btw takes a closer look at this important program, and introduces you to some of this year’s winners.

How Did the Award Begin?

The award was first given in 1982. It was developed by Bess Lomax Hawes, the first director of the NEA’s Folk and Traditional Arts Program. Interestingly, it began as only a $5,000 award; it wasn’t until 2009 that winning artists began receiving the current grant of $25,000.

The NEA doesn’t go out and find artists to recognize. They are first nominated by individual citizens, and then experts in the field examine the nominations (usually over 200 of them), to narrow it down to a few top contenders. Then it’s up to the chairperson of the NEA to make the final decision.

So Who Won This Year?

This year’s ten honorees represent a wide range of talent. William Bell is a Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter. Among many other achievements, he co-wrote the classic blues hit “Born Under a Bad Sign.” Suni Paz is a singer and songwriter who was born in Argentina and performs a form of socially-conscious music called nueva cancion. Omnik Dinkjian is an Armenian singer who also mentors young artists. John Morris is a fiddler and banjo player from West Virginia whose work protests the way Appalachian people are taken advantage of by mining companies. Hugo N. Morales is a radio producer who founded Radio Bilingue and has spent his career promoting the contributions of Latin Americans in the media.

Not all of the artists honored are musicians, however. Karen Ann Hoffman, a member of the Oneida Nation, is known for her intricate Iroquois style of raised beadwork. Wayne Valliere is another Native American artist to receive this year’s grant. Valliere is a member of the Ojibwe community who teaches the Ojibwe language and a variety of Ojibwe cultural practices.

Two dance troupes were also recognized this year. They include Los Matachines de la Santa Cruz de la Ladrillera from Texas. This group celebrates traditional dance, music, foods, and costumes from central Mexico. Finally, the NEA honored Zakarya and Naomi Diouf, who perform West African dancing and drumming.

How Will the Artists Be Recognized?

Aside from the $25,000 grant, each artist will also receive a certificate of honor and a letter of congratulations from the president. There is also an annual recognition event held in the fall, but it will take place virtually this year due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. An artist can only receive the NEA National Heritage Award once in his or her lifetime.

What Do You Think? Visit the NEA’s Web site to learn more about the program and the awards it offers. Why do you think it might be important for the federal government to recognize and support the arts?