The Kennedy Center Honors is one of the nation’s most prestigious in acknowledging American artists. (Photos/Getty Images )

Kennedy Center’s new review process a “seismic shift,” says Latino arts foundation

One of the nation’s foremost cultural organizations, the Kennedy Center, will review the way it chooses artists for its prestigious prize, the Kennedy Center Honors. This follows strong criticism from the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, a group of established Latino artists who have pointed out that only two out of the more than 180 artists honored have been Hispanics — and moreover, there has been a decade between both Hispanics honored.  The Kennedy Center also announced it will form a Latino Advisory Committee, “to establish a more open and collaborative engagement with the Hispanic community,” according to the Kennedy Center statement.

Felix Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, says to NBC Latino this is welcome news, and it is long overdue.   “I think that what we’re looking at here is a seismic shift.  We’re looking at institutional change, and we are seeing it across the board, especially right before and after November’s election,” says Sanchez.  “There is a realization and acknowledgement that the Latino community is part of the American mosaic,” Sanchez states.

Sanchez says honoring excellent Latino artists — such as music legend Carlos Santana or actress Rita Moreno, one of the few artists who has been honored with an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy — is important for many reasons.  One is that not enough focus has been placed on the cultural and artistic achievements of American Latinos.  “We keep on being presented with Latino images that are international in nature,” says Sanchez, arguing there has to be a greater mix of U.S. Latino artists whose work is honored and recognized.

This is also important, says Sanchez, since honors like the Kennedy Center’s “define our community, not just to us, but to the non-Latino community at large.  It does not help us be recognized as part of the mainstream when U.S. Latino images are treated as second-tier performers,” Sanchez adds.

The Kennedy Center Honors were created in 1978 by George Stevens Jr, whose film and producing career has spanned over fifty years. Mr. Stevens is one of three people who draws up the initial list of potential honorees.  In December, Mr. Stevens told the Associated Press, “we should be conscious of diversity insofar as it doesn’t compromise excellence because without excellence, we’re not fulfilling President Kennedy’s mandate — and I think we can do both.”

But Sanchez points out that increased diversity does not diminish artistic excellence.  Sanchez hopes “the Kennedy Center will phase out its current production team and bring more progressive and inclusive younger producers who will understand and validate the contribution of Latino artists.”

Last September, the Kennedy Center formed a committee “to identify improvements to the Honoree selection process,” according to the Kennedy Center statement.  The Kennedy Center also created an 11-member artist advisory panel.  This panel includes several Latinos, including Gabriel Abaroa, President and CEO of the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Thomas Saenz, President and General Counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), Maria de Leon, Executive Director of the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture, and Roberto Bedoya, Executive Director of the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture.

Apart from recommendations for the Kennedy Center Honors, Sanchez says this advisory panel can also help bring more balanced and varied performance choices and events to the Kennedy Center.

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