Celebration of the Arts Awards - History

The Council recognizes that the arts in Alabama thrive and prosper through the efforts of artists, educators, philanthropists, administrators and other supporters. Since 1971, when the Council presented its first Certificates of Distinguished and Loyal Service, this tradition of honoring significant contributions to the arts has evolved into the biennial Celebration of the Arts, an event that brings arts enthusiasts together to appreciate an exceptional group of Alabamians and their work in support of the arts.

In 1972, Nancy Hanks, then Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts visited the state. Council Chairman, Mrs. David Roberts of Birmingham presented Chairman Hanks with a kiosk for use outside the Endowment Offices in appreciation for the NEA’s assistance to Alabama artists and arts organizations. A few months later, the Council presented an identical kiosk to Governor George C. Wallace, who had it installed in a prominent place outside the Department of Education for use by arts groups around the state.

A more structured awards program took shape at the first Alabama Arts Convention, held in Selma in 1974, when local arts councils across Alabama nominated leaders in the arts for statewide recognition. Council Vice-Chairman Aubrey Green presented Merit Awards to Emily Eastborn (Performing Arts Association of Foley), Emil Hess (Greater Birmingham Arts Alliance), Helen Johnson (Decatur Arts Council), Betty Jones, (Cleburne County Arts and Crafts League), Doris Leapard (Arts and Humanities Council of Tuscaloosa County), Annie Bestar Mitchell (Sumter County Fine Arts Council), Donald Smith Sr. (Allied Arts Council of Metropolitan Mobile), Lloyd B. Tygett (The Arts Council of Huntsville), and Beth Wallace Yates (Sylacauga Area Council on the Arts and Humanitites).

The Alabama Association of Community Arts Councils was an outgrowth of that convention, an organization which later became the Alabama Assembly of Community Arts Councils. The Assembly’s annual convention included a luncheon which featured the presentation of the Council’s Merit Awards. A second group of awards, the Media in the Arts Awards, was added in 1976. In subsequent year, the two awards categories were merged in to an annual program to recognize “. . .outstanding service to the arts through news media coverage or other community activities.” Recipients of the Media Awards that year were: The Anniston Star, The Montgomery Advertiser, the Tuscaloosa News, The Hartselle Inquirer, The Azalea City News (Mobile), WKRG-TV (Mobile), WSFA-TV (Montgomery), WHMA-TV (Anniston) and WKLH-FM (Montgomery). The Council presented as many as 25 community and media awards for the next four years.

In 1980, the Council combined these to award categories to create the Governor’s Arts Award Program. The first Governor’s Arts Award recipients were: M.P. Wilkerson (Montgomery) University Television Service (Tuscaloosa), Parisian’s (Huntsville), Alabama Shakespeare Festival, (Anniston), Fantasy Playhouse (Huntsville), The Birmingham Ballet, Alabama Dance Theatre (Montgomery), The New Cadek Piano Quartet (Tuscaloosa), The Mobile Opera, Kentuck Association (Northport), Eastern Shore Arts Association (Fairhope), Macon County Fine Arts Manifesto (Tuskegee), and the Jasmine Hill Arts Council (Wetumpka). Each year, between 12 and 15 Governor’s Arts Awards were presented.

Yet another category was added in 1986 when the first Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to James Hatcher of Birmingham. Mr. Hatcher, long-time director of Birmingham’s Town and Gown Theatre, was instrumental in establishing the State Arts Council. In subsequent years, the Council honored the lifetime achievements of Jonnie Dee Little (Auburn), J.L Lowe (Birmingham), Wynton Blount (Montgomery), Louise Rodgers (Huntsville), Hugh Thomas (Birmingham), Allen Bales (Tuscaloosa), Jack Warner (Tuscaloosa), Elton B. Stephens (Birmingham), and James Nelson (Birmingham), Phillip Sellers (Montgomery), Gloria Narramore Moody (Birmingham), Robert P. Gamble (Greenville), Dot Moore (Guntersville), Joe McInnes (Montgomery) and Lyndra Daniel (Birmingham). This diverse group of artists, arts patrons, civic leaders, and educators represent lifetimes of effort toward the advancement of the arts in Alabama. In 1989, the Council voted to name the Lifetime Achievement Award in memory of the first recipient, Jonnie Dee Little, a former member of the State Arts Council who was well known for her advocacy of the arts in Alabama.

The year 1987 saw some changes in the awards program. While the Council continued to award Alabamians for their service to and accomplishments in the arts, the program became a biennial event. The number of Governor’s Awards presented was gradually reduced, with four or five presented every other year. The separate category for Media and the Arts was eliminated, but media with significant accomplishment in the arts could still be recognized with a Governor’s Award.

In the same period, the Council established the Alabama Folk Heritage Award to honor master folk artists who have made outstanding contributions to the state through the practice of their artistic traditions including shape-note singing, quilting, basket making, old-time fiddling, pottery, blues, and bluegrass gospel. Japheth Jackson (Ozark), was the first Alabama Folk Heritage Award recipient. Others include Johnny Shines (Tuscaloosa), Nora Ezell (Eutaw), Noah Lacy (Ider), Gail Thrower (Atmore), Lomia Nunn (Graham), Bettye Kimbrell (Mt. Olive), Arthur Deason (Centreville), the Sterling Juliblee Singers (Bessemer), Bo McGee (Tuscaloosa), Jerry Brown (Hamilton), Margie and Enoch Sullivan, (St. Stephens), Jerry McCain (Gadsden), Willie King (Old Memphis), James Bryan, (Mentone) and The Excelsior Band (Mobile).

The Council added the Distinguished Artist Award in 1995 to recognized Alabama artists who have made significant contributions to their art forms and to the arts in Alabama. Actor Jim Nabors (Honolulu/Sylacauga) received the first award. Other recipients include William Christenberry (Washington D.C.), Frank Fleming (Birmingham), Fannie Flagg (Birmingham/ Fairhope), Albert Murray (New York, N.Y.), George Lindsay (Jasper/Nashville), Nall (Troy/Fairhope), Beth Neilsen Chapman (Montgomery/Nashville),Rebecca Luker (Birmingham/New York) and Rick Bragg (Piedmont).

The Council welcomes nominations for the awards program. Please click on How to Nominate for more information about making a nomination.