WASHINGTON -- Thirty-one years after her debut broke the color barrier of the opera world, Marian Anderson was among nine distinguished Americans honored at the White House today as recipients of the National Medal of Arts.
During a White House luncheon, President Reagan awarded 12 of the silver medals -- nine to such figures as Anderson, Oscar-winning film director Frank Capra and composer Aaron Copland and three others to patrons of the arts.
'As we award these 12 medals today,' Reagan said, 'we celebrate 12 rich contributions to American arts. And, in a wider sense, we celebrate American culture itself -- the culture of liberty, a culture in which artists are free to be true to themselves.'
Six of the recipients -- Anderson, Capra, Copland, abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning, actress Eva Le Gallienne and philosopher-literary critic Lewis Mumford -- were honored in absentia due to health or other personal reasons.
Anderson, 84, who overcame discrimination to become the first black to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, was praised by first lady Nancy Reagan as 'one of the greatest ladies of opera.'
Capra, 89, is a five-time Academy Award-winner whose credits as director and producer include 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' and 'It's A Wonderful Life.' Copland, 85, has won a New York Music Critics Circle Award, an Oscar and a Pulitzer Prize for his American symphonies, ballets and movie scores.
Le Gallienne, 87, was being honored for her work on the stage as well as her involvement with regional theater groups. Mumford, 90, was to be feted for his work as a writer and social commentator.
Other recipients included artist Willem de Kooning, 82; choreographer Agnes de Mille, 80, whose first success came in Copland's 'Rodeo'; Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eudora Welty, 77; and folklorist-scholar Alan Lomax, 71.
Medals for financial and other support of the arts were held for Dominique de Menil, a Houston art collector; Seymour Knox, founder of the Albright Knox Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y.; and the Exxon Corp., which recently announced a cut in its funding of the 'Great Performances' series on public television.
Congress authorized the National Medal of Arts in 1984. By law, the president is empowered to present no more than 12 of the silver medals each year 'to individuals or groups who in the president's judgment are deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the United States.'
Today's ceremony was scheduled in contrast to much of the week ahead for Reagan, who will focus on pressing legislative items such as tax reform as Congress returns from a two-week holiday recess.
Reagan spent the weekend at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., where he delivered his weekly radio address Saturday warning against budget cuts in his 'Star Wars' space defense program.