The R&B group Earth, Wind & Fire, the actress Sally Field, the singer Linda Ronstadt and the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas will receive Kennedy Center Honors in December for their lifetime achievements in the arts, the cultural center announced on Thursday.
“Sesame Street,” which is celebrating 50 years on the air this year, will also receive an award, making it the second time the Kennedy Center is bestowing the honor on a work of art rather than an individual. (“Hamilton,” recognized last year, was the first.) It is the first honor bestowed to a television program, the center said.
“We started thinking about what it would be like here in this 50th anniversary year for ‘Sesame Street,’ and it was a runaway hit with the selection committee,” Deborah F. Rutter, the president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, said in an interview. “It really felt right to do this for ‘Sesame Street.’”
It’s too early for the Trumps to know if they will go this year, Ms. Rutter said. While presidents had missed the gala on rare occasions before — three times in the honors’ 40-year history — the Trumps’ absence in 2017 was the first time both the president and first lady decided to skip. Because the Kennedy Center Honors is such a “sought-after event,” Ms. Rutter added, she has not seen any change in ticket sales for the gala, which is the center’s key fund-raiser.
Several of this year’s nominees have criticized President Trump in the past — and criticism by honorees seemed to prompt his absence from the last two galas. Linda Ronstadt has been outspoken about the president and his administration’s separation of immigrant children from their families at the border, and when Earth, Wind & Fire’s hit “September” was played at the Republican National Convention the night Mr. Trump clinched the nomination, the group posted on Twitter that the song’s use was unauthorized and “against our wishes.”
But while the 2017 honorees were vocal about reconsidering their participation in Kennedy Center Honors events because of the possibility that Mr. Trump would attend, some of this year’s artists think he may not make it to the gala this year, anyway. Mr. Tilson Thomas, for one, said in an interview that it’s “such an unlikely occurrence” that the president would show up that he hasn’t thought much about whether it would affect his own attendance.
Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire prefers to not think about it at all. “With everything happening so fast and all that stuff — this is just unveiling — I think I’m going to leave that question on the side,” Mr. Bailey said in an interview. “It kind of spoils the moment to actually interject that element into it, it really does.”
The genre-bending Earth, Wind & Fire — whose funk-filled, energetic hits include “September,” “Let’s Groove” and “Shining Star” — has won six Grammy Awards over its nearly 50 years. The band’s founder and frontman, Maurice White, died in 2016. The other three faces of the group, Mr. Bailey, Ralph Johnson and Verdine White — Maurice’s younger brother — will accept the honor.
“Almost 50 years since the beginning of Maurice putting together this wonderful idea to render service to humanity, I know that he would be so proud to see this achievement being something that is so worthy of his intent,” Mr. Bailey said. “It wasn’t just about entertaining, it wasn’t just about fulfilling our own aspirations as musicians, but it was to render a service.”
Linda Ronstadt, the folksy singer whose distinct voice blends rock, country and pop, is behind singles like “You’re No Good” and “Blue Bayou.” Ms. Ronstadt, who has won 10 Grammy Awards, retired from performing in 2011. When her agent called and told her she was a Kennedy Center honoree, she said in an interview, she thought there was a mistake.
“I was a little surprised; I thought I had enough awards,” Ms. Ronstadt said. “I think maybe sometimes they give you an award for getting to be 73.”
“It sort of makes me feel very connected to many people in the past who have won these honors, but also to just the positive characters, these inspiring people who made time in their very busy lives to share some of their visions and projects with me,” Mr. Tilson Thomas said in an interview. “All this ties in very much with the kind of work that I’m doing with young people.”
“To learn that I will be given one of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors, seems hard to fathom,” she said in a statement. “I am grateful, humbled and profoundly proud.”
Accepting the honor for “Sesame Street” will be Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, who co-founded the Children’s Television Workshop (now the Sesame Workshop) in 1968, a year before the children’s show debuted. At least 33 Kennedy Center honorees have appeared on the program, including Julie Andrews, Carol Burnett, Tom Hanks and Barbra Streisand.
The gala will be broadcast on CBS on Dec. 15.