President Obama exchanged hugs and a slap on the back with Mayor Joe Riley on Thursday and awarded him the prestigious National Medal of Arts in the East Room of the White House.
In casual remarks as the president closed the ceremony, Obama singled out and cited the mayor, among a handful of the other recipients, as “my great friend Joe Riley and the extraordinary work he’s done in Charleston.”
Riley was recognized for cultivating historic and cultural resources to reinvigorate the city, and for his role creating the national Mayors’ Institute on City Design to enhance the use of urban spaces. He was one of 12 people or organizations to receive the medal for 2009, alongside eight people who received the National Humanities Medal.
The lifetime honor is given for contributions to the creation, growth and support of arts or humanities in the United States; recipients are selected from hundreds of nominees each year.
First elected mayor in 1975, Riley has championed revitalization of the downtown and its arts and historic character. He’s pushed for projects as diverse as Spoleto Festival U.S.A., Charleston Place, Waterfront Park, the S.C. Aquarium and a current downtown performing arts and civic center, with a renovated Gaillard Auditorium at its core.
“This award is a recognition of the city that I am privileged to serve and a recognition of the work of our community to build and maintain a beautiful and livable city that is a national treasure,” Riley said in a prepared statement, adding that he is proud of his role with the institute.
“I don’t think there’s anybody more deserving. It really reflects the culture of Charleston and what it means,” said Theodore Stern, former College of Charleston president and board director emeritus of the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. “We wouldn’t have Spoleto without the mayor, persisting and insisting. He’s held it together and it’s been a savior.”
Other arts medal recipients were singer Bob Dylan, actor and director Clint Eastwood, graphic designer Milton Glaser, Vietnam Veterans Memorial architect Maya Lin, singer and dancer Rita Moreno, opera singer Jessye Norman, painter Frank Stella, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and composer John Williams. The Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and the School of American Ballet in New York City also were awarded medals.
Dylan and Eastwood did not attend the ceremony.
Humanities medal recipients were biographer Robert A. Caro, historians Annette Gordon-Reed, David Levering Lewis, William H. McNeill and Theodore C. Sorensen, Metropolitan Museum of Art leader Phillippe de Montebello, philanthropist Albert H. Small and Holocaust historian and human rights advocate Elie Wiesel.
The president was joined by first lady Michelle Obama.
“Each and every one of these individuals in some ways has touched my life,” Obama said.