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New Yorkers Receive Presidential Arts and Humanities Medals

President Barack Obama presented 20 individuals with national arts and humanities awards on Wednesday afternoon in the East Room of the White House. Many of them spent time in or were born in New York City, like jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins.

"I've got these thumb-worn editions of these works of art and these old records where they were still vinyl, Sonny, before they went digital that helped inspire me or get me through a tough day," President Obama said during the ceremony.

Robert L. Lynch, president and C.E.O. of the national arts advocacy nonprofit Americans for the Arts, says getting a presidential medal is one of the highest honors an artist can get. "It's not something that you need, but it's something that's I think is really, really valuable as an affirmation of the career that you've chosen and work in the arts," Lynch said, adding that a number of the medal recipients announced on Wednesday, including Quincy Jones, Meryl Streep, James Taylor, Donald Aaron and Mark di Suvero had worked with his group to advance the arts in the past.

He adds that the awards are good for arts fund-raising. "It's...really important for America to be able to have an opportunity to see excellence, achievement, the value of the arts and the value of arts support in our country," Lynch said. "That's often too much of a secret. And this is a way at the highest levels of getting the secret out."

Tyler Green, who is the editor of Modern Art Notes, agrees that the awards are important, in part because it shows the country values its artists. "It's also a way to acknowledge greatness while not actually writing a check to fund cultural production, presentation or preservation at a level commensurate with other Western nations," Green said, adding that President Obama's recent budget proposals for the coming fiscal year cut arts funding dramatically.

Mark di Suvero's "Clock Knot" in Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, Queens.Green said that he's pleased that the New York City sculptor Mark di Suvero got a presidential medal for the arts. "The scale of his work does not lend itself to museum retrospective format," Green said. "His sculptures are giant. They don't go inside buildings. Artists like that kind of don't get the institutional recognition that other visual artists get."

Di Suvero, an Abstract Expressionist sculptor who lives in New York and who is married to the city's commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs Kate Levin, founded Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, Queens in 1986. Examples of di Suvero's massive steel sculptures can be found in Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens (pictured at left), downtown Manhattan's Liberty Plaza Park (newly named Zuccotti Park) and in Brooklyn's Pratt Institute Sculpture Park.

Music producer Quincy Jones, who worked in New York in the 1950s arranging and recording artists like Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, also was awarded an arts medal. Jones has won more than two dozen Grammy awards and produced Michael Jackson's Off The Wall, Bad and Thriller, as well as the benefit song "We Are The World."

Robert Brustein, who was born in New York City in 1927, was another medal recipient. The theater critic, playwright and producer is now a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Boston's Suffolk University. 

Pianist Van Cliburn received his arts medal for breaking down political barriers through music. Cliburn attended Julliard to study with Madame Rosina Lhevinne in the 1950s. After winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1959, he returned to New York City to a ticker-tape parade—the only time a classical musician was ever honored with this tribute, according to Cliburn's foundation's Web site.

Sonny RollinsJazz musician Sonny Rollins (pictured at right) also received a medal on Wednesday. Rollins was born in New York City in 1930 and grew up in Harlem. During the '50s, he played saxophone with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. From 1959 to 1961, he stopped playing out: "I used to practice on the Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge because I was living on the Lower East Side," Rollins wrote on his Web site. Rollins turns 81 this September.

Harper Lee and Meryl Streep did not appear at the White House on Wednesday to receive their medals. Lee, best known for her classic bestseller "To Kill a Mockingbird," reportedly dropped out of law school to pursue her writing in New York City in 1949. Although Lee grants few interviews, she is said to split her time between New York City and Alabama. Streep, who was born in Summit, New Jersey, also has spent time in New York—on Broadway acting in plays like "Happy End" and "A Memory of Two Mondays." She recently starred in the Public Theater's "Mother Courage and Her Children" at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park.

Another recipient, the singer James Taylor, also lived in New York City, beginning during the late '60s to play in his band The Flying Machine. He has lived in the city on and off since then, although he now calls The Berkshires home.

French-American historian Jacques Barzun, poet Wendell Berry and literary critic Arnold Rampersad all received humanities medals. They have also spent time in New York City: Barzun attended Columbia University; Rampersad taught at Columbia; and Berry taught English at New York University. The prolific writer Joyce Carol Oates, who was born in Lockport and grew up in Millersport, New York, also received a National Humanities Medal.

Here's the full list of award recipients:

2010 National Medal of Arts

  • Robert Brustein
  • Van Cliburn
  • Mark di Suvero
  • Donald Hall
  • Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival
  • Quincy Jones
  • Harper Lee
  • Sonny Rollins
  • Meryl Streep
  • James Taylor

2010 National Humanities Medal

  • Daniel Aaron
  • Bernard Bailyn
  • Jacques Barzun
  • Wendell E. Berry
  • Roberto González Echevarría
  • Stanley Nider Katz
  • Joyce Carol Oates
  • Arnold Rampersad
  • Philip Roth
  • Gordon Wood