Constance Alexander: Governor’s Award for the Arts recipients should be allowed public ceremony

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In 2014, as the recipient of a Governor’s Award in the Arts for my work in the Media, I participated in a public ceremony at the Kentucky Capitol Rotunda, honoring me and eight others who were – according to the press release from July 9, 2014 – “…chosen for their significant contributions to the arts in the Commonwealth, across the country and around the globe.”

The formal awards ceremony was joyful and respectful of the honorees, and each of us was given a few minutes to make remarks to the gathering. In addition, each award recipient was welcome to invite four guests. Besides my husband, my other guests included three other people who have inspired me with their unstinting support of the arts and artistic expression. They were veteran journalist Al Smith and his wife Martha Helen Smith; and Liz Bussey Fentress, actor and playwright who ran Murray’s community theatre in the 1980s, and stood up to a major donor who objected to the performance of a play I had written and threatened to withdraw funding.

National award winner jahi chikwendiu talks to Kentucky Arts Council chair Mary Michael Corbett and acting director Chris Cathers at the Governor’s Awards in the Arts (Photo by Marvin Young, Kentucky Arts Council)

At the awards presentation, I delivered my prepared remarks with a lump in my throat, not out of nervousness at public speaking, but with deep appreciation for Kentucky’s commitment to the arts. I was grateful to herald the contributions of the arts to the quality of life and economic development in western Kentucky, including many projects that had been funded, in whole or in part, by grants from the Kentucky Arts Council.

After reading that the 2017 recipients of the Governor’s Awards were not recognized in a public ceremony — and were not given the opportunity to share their personal thoughts and insights at the event – I was disappointed and troubled. After all, freedom of speech, whether we agree with the sentiments expressed or not, is an essential First Amendment right and a crucial component of artistic expression.

How then can the contributions of leaders in the arts be suitably lauded without granting the artists themselves a few minutes each to make personal remarks?

This year’s change of format for the awards was explained in an email by Kentucky Arts Council spokesperson Tom Musgrave: “We combined the ceremony and the recipients’ luncheon into a single event at the (Governor’s) mansion. That meant we had less time for the actual presentation of awards, so the acceptance speech portion was taken out of the schedule.”

Musgrave’s email also said that recipients could submit their statements to be published via Kentucky Arts Council’s social media.

The event was live-streamed on the governor’s Facebook page, approximately 26 minutes of controlled communication in which the governor stated that the recipients “deserve to be recognized,” which they were.

What they were not permitted to do was to speak.

Recipient of the National Award, jahi chikwendiu — Lexington native and celebrated photojournalist — posted his artist statement online, saying that he accepted the award not for himself, “but for the team.”

He added that he was, “… repping a dynasty that goes waaay deeper than me…for all my people who never made it.”

Chikwendiu said that he would have liked to hear the voices of the other honorees, but “our eleven 1-minute speeches seemed to be ‘sold’ for at least one of two relatively lengthy Governor’s remarks.”

Channeling the voices of author James Baldwin and playwright Lorraine Hansberry, chikwendiu also quoted Nina Simone, who said, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”

In one way, I suppose, the silencing of the 2017 Governor’s Award in the Arts recipients at the formal ceremony designed to honor them is a sign of the times. It is also, however, a slap in the face of free speech and open communication, apparently based on an assumption that speech is only free when everyone holds the same opinion.

A video of the awards is online at bit.ly/2s9vviG.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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One Comment

  1. Sarah Wiltsee says:

    Just finished a book on how Germany was slowly taken over by Hitler! The arts were one of the first things,then press, then speech,etc. Most of us may not be aware how arts have been a been removed from our public schools! We need to protect our freedom and democracy and our creative thinking! Or what is now being called Liberls!

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