The Kennedy Center Honors have celebrated lifetime achievements in the performing arts for 32 years, and for 32 years there have been popular telecasts, White House receptions for the winners and the occasional critic scanning the list of honorees and saying, “Huh?”
A few eyebrows were raised again last month when the Kennedy Center selected Oprah Winfrey as one of the five honorees this year.
“Is Oprah worthy of receiving Kennedy Center Honors?” read a headline on a Los Angeles Times blog.
Commentators there and elsewhere noted that while Ms. Winfrey’s contributions to American culture were significant, her impact had largely been as a talk show host, not as a performer who acted in “The Color Purple” and about 10 other films.
So just what are the criteria for one of the few awards that come with a pat on the back from the commander in chief?
It turns out that the selection process by the center’s trustees is largely an informal affair, long on efforts at creating balance, recognizing achievement and acknowledging public appeal, and short on any kind of balloting or written rules.
There is a nominating process that draws recommendations from roughly 100 artists, who all get a letter from George Stevens Jr., who, as producer of the event, has managed the awards since he created them in 1978. “The primary criterion is excellence,” the letter states.