Kennedy Center Honors to Review Awards Selection Process Amid Diversity Complaints

Latino groups are angry that only two Hispanic performers have been given the Kennedy Center Honors cultural prize

The Kennedy Center Honors is launching a review of its selection process after Latino groups objected to a lack of diversity among the recipients of one of the country's most prestigious awards for artists.

In addition, the federally supported arts organization said it will form a Latino Advisory Committee to help improve its selection process and to establish a stronger connection to the Hispanic community.

Getty ImagesThe Kennedy Center said it hopes the committee will complete its work and make recommendations to its full board of trustees in advance of the 2013 Kennedy Center Honors selection process.

“Over the course of 35 years, the Kennedy Center Honors has grown in stature and importance to become the preeminent award for cultural achievement in the United States,” Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser said in a statement. “While the Center has a strong track record of diversity throughout its other performance, education and arts education programs, it is important to undertake this review process to ensure the Honors reflect the diversity of those who have contributed to American culture.”

Out of the more than 180 people who have received the award, only two — Placido Domingo and Chita Rivera — have been Hispanic. Groups like the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts had slammed the organization for ignoring performers like Joan Baez or Edward James Olmos in handing out the annual career achievement prizes.

Tensions boiled over last September after Kaiser used profanity in a phone call with Felix Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. After Sanchez complained that it had been 10 years since there was a Latino Kennedy Center Honoree, Kaiser allegedly told him to “f—- yourself” and hung up on him.

Kaiser later said he regretted using “strong language” during the conversation. In a sign that relations have improved slightly, Sanchez offered praise for the Kennedy Center's efforts this week to broaden its list of honorees.

"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,” Sanchez told NBC Latino.  ”There is a realization and acknowledgement that the Latino community is part of the American mosaic."

In the past, Kaiser, Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein and producer George Stevens Jr. oversaw the first stage of the selection process, drawing on recommendations from artist committees. The trio's selections would then be finalized by the center's board. 

The center's leadership is asking another committee to find ways to improve this process. That committee includes representatives from government, business and the arts such as  actress Debbie Allen, Broadway star Rául Esparza; cellist Yo-Yo Ma; and former congressman and cabinet secretary Norman Mineta.

Though Latino groups have had an antagonistic relationship with the cultural institution in recent years, their contribution to arts and culture will be honored in a special Kennedy Center event timed to President Obama's inauguration this month.

The event will be hosted by Eva Longoria and will feature performances by actors and artists like comedian George Lopez, TV personality Mario Lopez, singer Rita Moreno, actress-singer Chita Rivera, director Robert Rodriguez and the Pan American Symphony Orchestra and will be held on Jan. 20. The event is part of Latino Inaugural 2013 – a three-day series of lectures, symposia and cultural gatherings around issues important to the community.