On the South Lawn of the White House, President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton presented 12 Americans with the 1998 Medal of Arts at a 9:30 a.m. ceremony today. Among this year’s honorees was Barbara Handman, a Vice President and New York Regional Director of the People For the American Way Foundation.
Handman is the first recipient of this award to be recognized for her lifetime work as an advocate for the arts. Handman, who is known as Bobbie to her friends and colleagues, is well known as an ardent defender of the arts in New York City.
In the early 1980s, when wrecking balls threatened playhouses in New York City’s historic theater district, Handman swung into action, forging a coalition that hammered out a solution that protects Broadway’s landmark theaters to this day.
“Bobbie’s passion for the arts is matched only by her passion for our nation’s Constitution,” said People For the American Way Foundation President Carole Shields. “She brings love, creativity, and tireless commitment to every cause she takes up.”
Sometimes those causes involve utilizing the power of the arts to reveal or remind people about the Constitution and what it means. Handman, who enjoys quoting the Founding Fathers even in ordinary conversation, brought her two favorite causes to life in New York in 1989. Concerned that official plans commemorating the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution did not do enough to get the public excited and involved, she organized a day-long reading of the Constitution in Federal Hall in New York City, sponsored by People For the American Way Foundation.
All day long, schoolchildren, elected officials, judges, athletes, artists and ordinary New Yorkers from nuns to construction workers formed a continuous democratic pageant, each taking their turn at the podium to read from the hallowed document in front of a spellbound crowd of 700. The experience was so uplifting and moving that it left many in tears.
“By the end of the day,” Handman recently recalled, “I felt like we had given the Constitution back to the American people.”
Bobbie is known as someone who demands a lot of herself and will not let others sit comfortably on the sidelines. If there’s a secret to her success as an advocate, it’s that she doesn’t take no for an answer for herself and, in her own good-natured way, won’t let others do it either. Often a new project starts with a series of phone calls and Bobbie’s voice saying, “We have to do something.” She has running jokes with a number of other leaders in the arts community who regularly tell her, “Bobbie, you can’t call me any more – I’ve changed my number.” But, of course, she does call. And, more often than not, she persuades them to pitch in.
Bobbie’s fervent defense of the arts and of the Constitution led her into the streets last month for an orderly demonstration that swelled to over a thousand participants. She organized “A Quiet Walk for the First Amendment” in front of the Manhattan Theatre Club on October 13, the opening night of Corpus Christi,a new play by award-winning playwright Terrence McNally. Her purpose was to remind both sides in the dispute over the play that the First Amendment protects everyone. Artists have the right to express their views and ideas. Audiences have the right to see and hear those ideas. Those who disagree with those ideas have the right to protest. And no group has the right to silence any of the others.
“Bobbie Handman understands that it is easy to support free speech when we agree with what is being said,” said PFAW Foundation President Carole Shields. “The real test of our commitment to free speech comes when we are confronted with ideas and words that offend us. If I were an artist and my work were under attack, I would want Bobbie Handman on my side.”
Other recipients of the 1998 National Medal of Arts are dancer Jacques d’Amboise, rock and roll singer and pianist “Fats” Antoine Domino, folksinger and songwriter Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, architect Frank Gehry, visual artist Agnes Martin, actor and producer Gregory Peck, opera singer Roberta Peters, writer Philip Roth, the Sara Lee Corporation, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago, and actress and dancer Gwen Verdon.