President George W. Bush ’68 awarded longtime history of art professor Vincent Scully ’40 GRD ’49 the 2004 National Medal of Arts, the nation’s most prestigious honor for artists and art patrons, in a White House ceremony Wednesday.
Scully, a former master of Morse College, has packed lecture halls teaching architecture and art history to generations of Yale students since 1947. The 84-year-old legendary professor is particularly well-known for advocating urban architecture that reflects a sense of community.
Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said the University applauds Bush’s selection of Scully for the national award.
“It’s incredibly gratifying that the president of the United States recognizes a Yale treasure,” Salovey said. “Perhaps for more than any other member of our faculty, generation after generation of Yale alumni tell me that Professor Scully’s course was one of their most meaningful experiences at Yale.”
Scully, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening, canceled his highly popular class “Introduction to the History of Art: Prehistory to the Renaissance” in order to receive the award in an Oval Office ceremony attended by Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. Seven other artists also received the award this year, including science fiction author Ray Bradbury. Past recipients have included Yo-Yo Ma, Maya Angelou and Barbra Streisand.
Scully enrolled at Yale at age 16 on a full scholarship after attending high school in New Haven and subsequently received his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees at Yale. Since he began his tenure as a professor in 1947, students and colleagues say, Scully has developed a reputation as one of the nation’s greatest architecture and art history scholars. Already, Yale has two endowed professorships in Scully’s name.
“He’s a legend,” said longtime history and classics professor Donald Kagan, a fixture at the University and a 2002 recipient of the National Humanities Medal. “He’s one of the great Yale teachers and Yale alumni. We’ll remember him forever.”
One of Scully’s contributions to the field of architecture is his study of the conflict between modernism and the “architecture of community” — the relation between buildings, or even entire districts, and their environment — said history of art professor Sandy Isenstadt, a modern architecture specialist. For example, in the 1960s, Scully raised strong objections to a Hilton Hotel under construction in Athens that he felt was incongruous with classical Greek architecture.
Isenstadt said Scully’s work, which includes numerous books and a half-century of teaching, has introduced his theories of community architecture to leading architects and the general public alike.
“There is no one who has done more in the entire country to educate the citizenry about the kind of stakes involved in how we inhabit the world,” Isenstadt said.
History of Art Department chairman Edward Cooke Jr. said Scully constantly pushes people to “pay attention to what’s around them.”
Scully’s students said his greatest strength lies in his ability to invigorate audiences with his own enthusiasm.
“I’ve never seen someone more into what they do,” said Seth Niedermayer ’06, who studied under Scully as a freshman and whose father took the course during his undergraduate years at Yale. “He got an applause after every class.”
History of art professor Judith Colton said Scully’s reputation makes him popular even with students new to college. She said that many of her freshman advisees enthusiastically commit to taking Scully’s classes after just their first meeting with her.
One of Scully’s students, Erica Deahl ’07, said that she has admired Scully’s passion throughout the semester and was honored to learn that he won the nation’s most prestigious award for artists.
“It’s rather humbling,” she said.