President Obama presented two of the 11 National Medal of Arts awards for 2014 to U-M honorees. The recipients, who received the award at the White House Sept. 10, were U-M Emeritus Professor George Shirley (right) and the University Musical Society (UMS).
Considered the nation’s highest public artistic honor, the medal is awarded to those who have demonstrated a lifetime of creative excellence.
At 27, Shirley became the first African-American tenor to perform leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera, where he sang for 11 seasons into the early 1970s. Since then, he has sung more than 80 roles, performed with many of the world’s top orchestras, and won a Grammy Award. Shirley joined the faculty of U-M’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance in 1987, where he was director of the Vocal Arts Division. Earlier in his career, he was the first black music teacher in the Detroit Public Schools. Shirley still maintains a studio at the music school and is currently serving as a Distinguished University Emeritus Professor of Music.
“I feel today as I felt some 54 years ago,” Shirley said. “Dazed and incredulous, when I heard the chairman of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions announce that I had just won first prize plus a performance contract with that esteemed company.”
Accepting on behalf of UMS was the organization’s president, Kenneth Fischer, MA’67. Renowned for its 137-year commitment to arts presentation, education, and creation, UMS became the first university-related arts presenter ever to receive the award. UMS has brought world-class orchestras, dance ensembles, jazz performers, and theater companies to U-M’s campus and southeast Michigan. The organization presents about 75 performances and 100 educational events a year. Fischer also formed prestigious partnerships with institutions like the Royal Shakespeare Company and New York Philharmonic.
Said Fischer: “For over a century, UMS has had an uncompromising commitment to presenting a diverse roster of legendary artists, to developing students at the University of Michigan and beyond, and to commissioning new work that we hope will influence arts enthusiasts for decades to come.”