WPAS Experience the Best - Washington Performing Arts Society

President Barack Obama honors WPAS with the National Medal of Arts  divider

Washington Performing Arts Society, one of the country’s leading performing arts presenters, was honored on July 10 by President Barack Obama with a National Medal of Arts for bringing world-class performances to our nation’s capital.

From concert-hall premieres to in-school workshops, WPAS has drawn renowned artists to the Washington community and inspired generations of young performers to follow their passions.” WPAS President and CEO Jenny Bilfield will accept the Medal on behalf of WPAS. She will be accompanied by WPAS Presidents Emeriti Neale Perl and Douglas Wheeler. This award is the highest honor given to artists and arts institutions by the U.S. Government and WPAS is only the fourth D.C.-based arts group and the first arts presenter of its kind to be so honored. Individuals to be honored this year include soprano Renée Fleming, musician Herb Alpert, playwright Tony Kushner, filmmaker George Lucas, and author Joan Didion.

“Washington Performing Arts Society shares this honor with students and teachers in our arts education programs, our embassy partners, the children and adults in our gospel choirs, the performers who have engaged and transformed our audiences, and our remarkable community of arts lovers,” says Jenny Bilfield. “WPAS is indeed honored to be awarded this prestigious medal, which recognizes Washington Performing Arts Society’s longstanding enrichment of the area’s cultural landscape,” says WPAS Board Chair and Booz Allen Hamilton Executive Vice President Reginald Van Lee.


WPAS has a 48-year history of launching new careers and nurturing tomorrow’s stars. WPAS presented violinist Midori’s first Washington recital at age 15. Singer Denyce Graves’s first main stage recital was presented by WPAS. Jessye Norman, Evgeny Kissin, Hilary Hahn, Savion Glover, Kathleen Battle, Luciano Pavarotti and Wynton Marsalis are among the numerous internationally respected musicians WPAS presented for the first time in Washington early in their careers, bringing them back for frequent performances. Dance companies first presented here by WPAS include Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Paul Taylor Dance Company and Liz Lerman Dance Company. WPAS also presented Dance Theatre of Harlem at the Kennedy Center Opera House shortly after its launch and a year after the Center opened and has brought numerous renowned international orchestras to Washington audiences.

WPAS was one of the first arts organizations to reflect the Washington area’s diversity, inviting singer Todd Duncan, who debuted the role of Porgy Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, to be WPAS’s first Board Chair at its founding in 1965 and including a broad representation of people from the community on its Board and committees.

WPAS has a long and continuing tradition of commissioning and presenting premieres of new works by composers such as John Corigliano, William Bolcom and Mark-Anthony Turnage, as well as Wynton Marsalis (Suite for Human Nature) and Sweet Honey in the Rock (Indaba). Upcoming commissions include Green is the New Black, a work by the Washington, D.C.-based dance troupe Step Afrika!


Distinguished not only by its performances and commissions, WPAS stands in the forefront of U.S. arts organizations in the area of educational outreach; engaging with audiences of all ages through its choruses, a wide variety of dynamic arts education programs, and community partnerships. WPAS programmed close to 900 education events over the past two years alone. This year, more than 57,000 people in Washington, D.C., Maryland and northern Virginia have benefited from WPAS educational programs.

These programs have included WPAS’s landmark CAPITOL ARTS INITIATIVE, featuring the Capitol Jazz, Strings, Voices and Dance Projects, bringing teaching artists, and in some cases curricula and instruments, into the D.C. Public Schools. Begun in 2007, the initiative’s Capitol Jazz Project partners with Jazz at Lincoln Center to bring teaching musicians and a curriculum authored by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis into local schools.

NMA Award

In addition, WPAS’s Concerts In Schools program and In-School Artist Residencies bring a diverse roster of experienced musicians, dancers, storytellers, and visual artists into area schools where, over a number of sessions, they integrate their artistic disciplines within existing school curricula to create interactive educational experiences. Designed for fifth and sixth-grade students in the D.C. Public Schools, WPAS's award-winning Embassy Adoption Program pairs embassies with individual classrooms for one school year to complement the social studies and English language arts curricula. As a result, students learn about the various facets of their “adopted” country and develop greater cultural awareness. WPAS’s participation in the Kids Euro Festival brings artists representing European countries to perform in D.C. Public Schools. Past performers include puppeteers, bubble-blowers, a virtual orchestra, storytellers, dancers, and a modern circus.

WPAS CHOIRS: The WPAS Men, Women, and Children of the Gospel Choirs have performed annually since the early 1990s at major venues within the Washington Metropolitan area such as the Kennedy Center, the Harman Center for the Arts and the Strathmore Music Center. WPAS’s unique role as a presenter of top-level artists has enabled choir members to perform with classical singers Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Kathleen Battle as well as Yolanda Adams, Dottie Peoples, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Donnie McClurkin, and other noted gospel singers. Children of the Gospel members have performed for the Inauguration of President Bill Clinton and twice for President Obama and other dignitaries at the Inaugural Prayer Service at the Washington National Cathedral; at the White House and the State Department; and on NBC’s Today, as well as at the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Four WPAS SUMMER CAMPS (Capitol Jazz Camp, Capitol Strings Camp, Children of the Gospel Vocal Workshop and Summer Steps with Step Afrika!) provide instruction in the traditions of jazz, string instrument techniques, gospel singing, and step dancing to young people ages nine to 18. In addition to instruction, students develop discipline, teamwork, and leadership skills. A fifth, Playful Rhythms, introduces music and movement to students age four to eight. Camps are led by a faculty of local teaching artists and are often enriched by world-renowned guest artists including musicians from Jazz at Lincoln Center.

The National Medal of Arts was established by Congress in 1984, upon the recommendation of President Ronald Reagan and the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, for the purpose of honoring artists and patrons of the arts. The President may award no more than 12 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.”


For more information, please contact Brenda Kean Tabor at (202) 533-1886 or btabor@wpas.org.