Governor and First Lady Haslam Announce the Recipients of the 2017 Governor’s Arts Awards

From Anne B. Pope, Executive Director —

Governor and First Lady Haslam have announced that ten recipients who represent the best in arts and culture in Tennessee to be presented with a 2017 Governor’s Arts Award, Tennessee’s highest honor in the arts.

“We want to congratulate the recipients for their incredible work adding to the rich cultural heritage of Tennessee,” Governor Haslam said. “Their dedication, leadership and contribution to the arts have enhanced our way of life and will continue to influence Tennesseans for many years to come.”

The recipients will be acknowledged during a private ceremony in March 2017 at the Tennessee Residence. Awards are made in three categories: Distinguished Artist, Arts Leadership and Folklife Heritage.

“We are honored to again host the Governor’s Arts Awards. We are proud to be a state that is home to incredible artists and dedicated leaders in the arts,” said First Lady Crissy Haslam.

The 2017 recipients are:

Distinguished Artist Award: Kallen Esperian, Opera Singer, Memphis
Kallen Esperian, regarded by many as one of the greatest operatic sopranos of our time, catapulted to the world stage as a winner of the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition in her early twenties. Since that time, she has sung leading roles in every major opera house in the world, including the Metropolitan Opera; the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden; and La Scala in Milan. She has been paired with tenors such as Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and Jose Carreras, both in opera and in concert. Esperian has received numerous awards and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Rhodes College in Memphis. Giving to hospitals, charities and other organizations associated with children is at the core of Esperian’s heart. She has performed for the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, among others.

Distinguished Artist Award: Vince Gill, Country Singer/Songwriter, Nashville
Vince Gill is a country singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. He has earned 20 Grammy Awards, more than any other male country music artist. He has recorded 18 studio albums, charted over 40 singles on the U.S. Billboard charts and sold more than 26 million albums. He has earned 18 CMA Awards, including two “Entertainer of the Year” trophies, and co-hosted the nationally telecast CMA Awards show for 12 consecutive years. In 2007 he was one of the youngest artists ever to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the Grand Ole Opry. In November of 2014, he received two awards for lifetime achievement from major music industry organizations: the Icon Award of the Broadcast Music Association and the Country Music Association’s Irving Waugh Award of Excellence. Gill has been recognized for his community involvement and participation in charity events, such as the annual Vince Gill Celebrity Basketball Game and the Vinny Pro-Celebrity Golf Invitational.

Distinguished Artist Award: Amy Grant, Christian Singer/Songwriter, Nashville
Amy Grant is credited for putting the genre of Contemporary Christian music on the mainstream map. She was the first Contemporary Christian artist to have a platinum record, the first to reach No. 1 on the Pop charts and the first to perform at the Grammy Awards. She has since earned six Grammy Awards and numerous Gospel Music Association Dove Awards, as well as three multi-platinum albums, six platinum albums and four gold albums. Grant has achieved ten Top 40 Pop singles and placed 17 hits on the Top 40 Adult Contemporary chart, as well as scored numerous hits on the Contemporary Christian charts. Having sold over 30 million units worldwide, Grant remains the best-selling contemporary Christian singer of all time. A longtime and active Nashville resident, Grant is as well known for her philanthropy as her music. She is tireless in her efforts to aid worthy causes, such as Barefoot Republic, The American Red Cross, Compassion International, and many other local and national charities.

Arts Leadership Award: Jim and Janet Ayres, Nashville
Jim and Janet Ayers have a long history of community leadership and philanthropy throughout the state of Tennessee. Launched in 1999, the Ayers Foundation focuses its philanthropic efforts on college scholarships, children’s medical services and pre-cancer research. To date, the Ayers Foundation has awarded more than 4,200 scholarships to graduating high school seniors. In 2011 the Ayers began to assemble a corporate art collection that includes works in a variety of different media and styles from artists with lasting ties to Tennessee. The collection has become one of the largest private collections of Tennessee artists. It features over 200 works and includes artists such as Red Grooms, Sylvia Hyman, Ron Porter and Andrew Saftel. Additionally, the Ayers have immersed themselves in the Nashville Symphony. They continue to play an ongoing leadership role with the Nashville Symphony board and its public programming.

Arts Leadership Award: Belcourt Theatre, Nashville
Nashville’s local nonprofit film center, the Belcourt Theatre has had a historical presence in the Hillsboro Village neighborhood since 1925. This vibrant cultural institution is dedicated to presenting the best of independent, documentary, world, repertory and classic cinema for people of all ages to discover, explore and learn through the power of film. In July of 2016, the Belcourt celebrated a grand reopening after a renovation and preservation project that was the building’s first major update in 50 years. In addition to needed structural updates, the renovation has also allowed for an increase in program and teaching capacity. With its revamped space and historical roots, the Belcourt continues to be recognized as one of Nashville’s most vibrant arts organizations and as a leader among the country’s art houses, regionally and nationally.

Arts Leadership Award: Jim Clayton, Knoxville
James L. Clayton created the Clayton Family Foundation in 1990 for the benefit of present and future generations of Tennesseans. Today, the Foundation is one of the largest in the South with liquid assets of $160 million. The Foundation played a pivotal role in the creation of the Clayton Arts Center, a state-of-the-art performing and visual arts facility on the campus of Maryville. In the late 1980s, Clayton was the largest single contributor to the construction of the Knoxville Museum of Art (KMA). In 2015 the museum celebrated its 25th year in the landmark Clayton Building, named in honor of Clayton’s transformational $3.25 million gift. He has generously supported the KMA’s ongoing operations ever since and remains the museum’s largest single annual donor. Clayton also supports the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra through the Symphony’s annual Clayton Holiday Concert, a much-beloved, decades-old family tradition.

Arts Leadership Award: Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, Memphis
The Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum opened in 2000 and has since been dedicated to telling the story of music in Memphis. Located on the corner of legendary Highway 61 at the FedExForum, the Museum offers a comprehensive Memphis music experience from the rural field hollers of the 1930s, through Memphis’ musical heyday and the explosion of Sun, Stax and Hi Records in the 1970s, to its global musical influence. The museum continues to contribute to the City of Memphis’ musical brand by orchestrating a multi-venue admission pass to iconic sites in the city; curating and producing the Historic Walking Tour of Beale Street to offer visitors an opportunity to learn the historical significance of Beale Street interactively; proving instrumental in launching and running the Memphis Music Hall of Fame; and staying open daily to visitors interested in learning the stories of one of the most iconic musical beds in the world.

Folklife Heritage Award: Allan Benton, Smoky Mountain Country Hams, Madisonville
The owner of Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville for over 40 years, Allan Benton has honed the dry curing of hams and bacon into a culinary art, catapulting the products from a breakfast mainstay into the world of gourmet cooking. Benton’s ham and bacon products have been featured in Southern Living, Gourmet, Saveur and Esquire magazines, and have become the standard against which all others are measured. Top chefs like Sean Brock, David Chang, and Hugh Acheson seek after them. In 2015 Benton was awarded the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America” award, given to those in the food industry who have contributed to America’s culinary scene. Benton owns the distinction for being the first foodways awardee in the history of the Tennessee Governor’s Arts Awards.

Folklife Heritage Award: Celia Garduño, Needleworker, Chattanooga
Mexican needleworker Celia Garduño has received widespread recognition for her brilliantly colored, delicately stitched textiles. Born in Tierras Coloradas, Michoacán, Mexico, Garduño learned needlework from her mother, Elvira González. Garduño mentors local Hispanic artists, and over the years her talents have been sought after and recognized in spite of her shy, retiring nature. She is one of 25 artists featured in Folklorist Roby Cogswell’s Tradition: Tennessee Lives and Legacies book and touring exhibition, a selection of some of the best living practitioners of folk arts in the state. She taught workshops in Hispanic textile arts through Chattanooga’s NEA funded Latino Arts Project in 2012. Her work was selected for display at Tennessee First Lady Crissy Haslam’s Christmas exhibition honoring our state’s finest craftspeople in 2015. Recently, her work was chosen for inclusion in “Spinning Yarn: Storytelling Through Southern Art,” a 2016 exhibition sponsored by the Crealde School of Art in Winter Park, Florida. She is the first Latino artist to receive a Tennessee Folklife Heritage Award. 

Folklife Heritage Award: Bob Fulcher, Folklorist, Clinton
Bob Fulcher’s legacy as a public folklorist stretches four decades and is unrivaled in the state of Tennessee. His fieldwork on the Cumberland Plateau, which began in the 1970s, led to the discovery of traditional musicians and singers of extraordinary quality and rarity. In 1979 Fulcher secured funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to begin the groundbreaking Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project. Since that time, Fulcher has released over two dozen albums of his field recordings and helped start over 20 events in Tennessee. As director of the Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project, and continuing with the Cumberland Trail Music and Heritage Project, Fulcher created a collection that is the largest compilation ever made of Tennesseans in their own voices and music. In 2000 Fulcher received the Botkin Prize from the American Folklore Society for his lifetime achievements in public folklore. He is the first folklorist to receive the Tennessee Folklife Heritage Award.

About the Governor’s Arts Awards
Established in 1971, the Governor’s Arts Awards is produced by the Tennessee Arts Commission and recognizes individuals and organizations whose contributions to the cultural life of Tennessee are outstanding. The Tennessee Arts Commission is the state arts agency whose mission is to cultivate the arts for the benefit of all Tennesseans and their communities.