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Wisdom of Salomon

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 27, 2011 - Awards ceremonies, testimonial dinners and roasts generally define soporific, and you either avoid them (at the risk of having people avoid your award ceremony or testimonial dinner or roast) or grin gamely and bear them.

The party thrown by the Arts and Education Council the other night was an exception and everyone at my table and everyone else I talked with had a good time and left with some warm memories along with their give-away shopping bags. But something else distinguished this event, and anyone who was listening should have heard an important message, more substantive than "he's wonderful" and "thanks for saying that."

The evening's special distinction came thanks to Wayne Salomon, who teaches theater at John Burroughs School. I'm going to ask him to hang out in the wings for a moment, and tell you the names of the other winners and why they were singled out to receive the Council's St. Louis Arts Awards.

Wells Fargo Advisors, still sort of the new guy in town, won for Corporate Support for the Arts. Indeed, shortly after its wagon rolled into town, it began a program of support for worthy causes, its St. Louis Symphony Orchestra series being a case in point.

Christian B. Peper served as counsel to the St. Louis Art Museum's Board of Commissioners with faithfulness and distinction for decades, and was a faithful patron as well, donating works of art as well as money. Now 100 years old, Peper took a rain check on making an appearance to collect his Excellence in Philanthropy award. His son and daughter filled in beautifully.

The polymath Paul Reuter is a just-across-the-alley neighbor of the Beacon and a very good neighbor at that. Reuter received the A&E's Arts Innovator Award for all the balls he juggles in his administrative and artistic life and entirely appropriately he accepted his prize by conducting a student orchestra and chorus that played and sang a composition by him.

Steven Woolf picked up the Excellence in the Arts award for the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. That's appropriate, too. For many of us, Steve is the Rep, and his leadership and artistic dexterity are legendary not only in St. Louis, where he has brought the company to a position of prominence and artistic excellence, but nationally as well.

Like Woolf, Mae Wheeler is an institution: Her music and engaging personality are silvery threads running through the tapestry of artistic life in our community. She received the award for Lifetime Achievement, and it couldn't be given to a more appropriate artist. She was serenaded in celebration of the honor given her.

Karen Duffy -- no relation -- is a restaurateur par excellence and proprietor of Duff's, another St. Louis institution. She took away the Champion for Literary Arts award, and she is indeed a champ. Duff's reputation is solid for its food but also respected for having provided sustenance -- plus a podium and microphone -- for a world of poets and novelists who come to the restaurant to read their work. Hooray for Karen and for everyone in the writing business who has been a beneficiary of her hospitality.

All the winners were gracious, genuinely appreciative recipients. But Wayne Salomon dispensed more than grace in his remarks to the audience, and his acceptance falls generally into the category of wisdom.

Awards presentations and acceptance speeches usually travel rather predictable paths unless of course you have someone like Marlon Brando raising a stink on your program.

Once in a while, however, one of the honored honors his audience with an acceptance that transcends the ordinary. Such was the speech of Salomon.

Salomon -- just for the record -- has enriched the lives of countless young men and women at Burroughs, and his particular brand of serious and assiduous training has sent at least three of them to stardom. They are Sarah Clarke, Ellie Kemper and Jon Hamm.

But it is not star making that puts Salomon in the blog today. Rather it is for his recognition of a steady erosion of the place of arts education in schools all over the place, and a national failure of will and seriousness on the part of the American public. We, that public, have capitulated to the Philistines, and unlike Little David have not fought hard enough the specious notion that if surgery must be done to save money in our schools, the place to insert the scalpel is at A for Art. It's a frill, after all. Who needs it?

Salomon's answer is, All of us need it, not for its entertainment value, not because it is pretty or soothing or is a nice way to pass the time. We need art because it humanizes and challenges us and puts us on the best, most certain path I know to the truth.

Art in its many manifestations holds us up and holds us together: As much as anything we can know, it is integral to the infrastructure of civilization.

As a spokesman for that point of view, Salomon employed his moment of recognition as an opportunity to seize the podium on the stage of the Khorassan Room at the Chase Hotel, and to transform it into his bully pulpit.

"I stand," he proclaimed, "on the shoulders of all arts educators to ask that everyone in this room tonight make certain that the arts -- performing, visual, fine and practical -- are taught in every American school from kindergarten through the 12th grade: exactly alongside academics and athletics.

"Because," he concluded, "if we fail to do this, in 50 years, our children and grandchildren won't have to fight any culture wars, because they won't have a culture."

Wayne Salomon won the Arts and Education Council's Art Educator of the Year Award. On Monday night, he wasn't teaching a handful of teenagers in an exceptionally fine independent school. He became Art Educator of the Year for all of us, and if we care about civilization, we need to sit up, to pay attention and to take notes.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.