This month, Ming Cho Lee, who has been teaching set design to students at the Yale School of Drama for more than 30 years, received national recognition for his extraordinary contributions to the arts.
On March 5, President George W. Bush announced Lee, co-chair of the Design Department at the Yale School of Drama and Donald M. Oenslager Professor Adjunct of Design, as a recipient of a 2002 National Medal of Arts. He and First Lady Laura Bush presented nine medals in a ceremony at the White House on March 6.
The National Medal of Arts is the nation’s highest honor for artistic excellence.
“We honor these individuals for the singular distinction of their artistic careers,” said Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, in a press release. “Whether they were creating stunning choreography, reconceiving contemporary stage design, or adding Motown to our nation’s musical vocabulary, these remarkable people have made significant contributions to our nation’s cultural life.”
Lee has been teaching at the Yale Drama School since 1969, and was appointed to the Donald M. Oenslager chair in 1995.
“He has been a major contributor to the school of drama for over 30 years. His students are leaders in the design world as well as in the world of teaching,” said James Bundy DRA ’95, dean of the School of Drama. “He is richly deserving of the award. His design work is as distinguished as any designer in the country.”
In addition to the most recent honor, Lee has also received Tony, Ovation and Helen Hayes awards. He is a member of the Theater Hall of Fame, and has received the New York City Mayor’s Award for Arts and Culture and a National Endowment for the Arts Distinguished Artists Fellowship.
Ann Puderbaugh, spokesperson for the National Endowment for the Arts, said the deliberations for the awards must remain confidential, so the exact reason why Lee was selected cannot be disclosed.
The Chinese-born Lee arrived in the United States in 1949 and studied at Occidental College in Los Angeles and later at the University of California at Los Angeles. He designed his first Broadway production, “Moonlight Besieged,” in 1962 and since has worked on theatrical productions around the world.
In an effort to help future scenic designers, Lee founded “Ming’s Clambake.” The weekend-long event aims to introduce new designers to the professional community, drawing together graduating theater design students and major designers and directors.
The U.S. Congress established the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965 as an independent agency of the federal government. It provides national recognition and support to projects of artistic excellence in an attempt to preserve and enhance the culture of the country.
Puderbaugh said anyone — from experts in the field and artistic organizations, to casual artists — can make recommendations to the organization for the Medal of Arts. The National Council on the Arts, the endowment’s advisory board, then reviews these nominations and makes recommendations to the president. The president presents the medal to those who have made extraordinary contributions to the creation, maintenance and growth of the arts in America.