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Walking into Cipriani on 42nd Street for the 55th annual Americans for the Arts awards ceremony gala on October 19 was like walking into a piece of art history in the making. The celebrated night began with a black-tie cocktail reception—in honor of National Arts and Humanities Month—and a large-scale work by Kerry James Marshall played as a perfect backdrop. The red carpet was rolled out for honorees like Herbie Hancock, Lady Gaga, and Sophia Loren, and there were dinner tables set to welcome three-course meals for guests of the night. The event recognized artists and art leaders who exhibit exemplary national leadership and whose work demonstrates extraordinary achievement. All proceeds from the evening, which totaled to $750,000, help to support Americans for the Arts’ core activities and programs, which serve more than 150,000 members across the United States every year. And each of the six awarded recipients took home trophies that replicated Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog statue.
This year marked the 30th anniversary of Robert L. Lynch as the CEO for Americans for the Arts, and also recognized Carolyn Clark Powers as its incoming National Arts Awards (NAA) Chair and as the namesake of its Lifetime Achievement Award. As guests made their way to their designated seats, the evening’s awards began with Tony-award winning Director Christopher Ashley presenting the Philanthropy in the Arts Award to Joan and Irwin Jacobs—co-founders of Qualcomm, and those behind the University of California at San Diego’s Joan and Irwin Jacobs Center for La Jolla Playhouse.
After speaking on behalf of the Jacobs’ move to California in 1966, and their quick shaping of San Diego’s cultural connections thereafter, Ashley thanked their two tables of friends and family in town from California. “Their support of the theater and all of the arts has been deep and long lasting,” said Ashley. “But what I specifically admire about them is their commitment to family, and to ensure that their four sons, and 12 grandchildren, know what it’s truly like to make a difference.”
Mrs. Jacobs credited her cultural New York childhood to her love for the arts, saying, “Growing up in New York City was a wonderful experience for me. On Saturdays, my dad would take me to museums, to the Statue of Liberty, and to Central Park.”
Next, Paul Simon presented the Outstanding Contributions to the Arts Award to musician Herbie Hancock. Hancock began playing piano at seven years old, was playing with the Chicago Symphony at eleven, was introduced to jazz in his teens, and began his early twenties working with music legends like Donald Byrd and Miles Davis.
“When you give an award called ‘Outstanding Contributions to the Arts’ to an artist, it’s for going beyond that artist’s own talent. Which in the case of Herbie Hancock, is enough to take your breath away,” said Simon. “He’s a modern music icon who has played with the greats from jazz to classical, R&B and hip-hop, acoustic and electric. He’s won 14 Grammys and an Oscar—and I’ve recorded with him, and it’s a real pleasure to be in the studio with somebody who’s that gifted and that smart,” said Simon. “When he has been asked whether he thinks music can effect the establishment of world peace, and changing people’s lives, his answer is ‘Yes. Yes, I do. Jazz has been the voice of freedom for millions of people for over a century.”
In addition to being a jazz sensation, Hancock is also an enthusiastic ambassador for jazz and music education. He is a visiting professor at ULCA’s Herb Alpert School of Music, and was named Harvard University’s Norton Professor of Poetry last year when he delivered six lectures of the ethics of jazz. He also serves as chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz—a non-profit public school institute offering the world’s most promising young musicians college-level training by American jazz masters. Hancock is also a founder and the co-President of the International Committee of Artists for Peace, and in 2011, was designated an honorary Unesco Goodwill ambassador for the promotion of intercultural dialogues. This participation in Unesco led to the establishment of International Jazz Day, which every April 30 celebrates music as a vehicle for promoting peace, cultural dialogue and human rights.
Hancock began his acceptance speech by mentioning his first mentor, and second piano teacher, Bertha Jordan. “She said, ‘Play something,’ and I’d play something. Then she said, ‘I want to play something for you.’ She played Chopin. And I heard something in her touch, in her feeling, that I’d never heard before, and I said, ‘I want that. I want that kind of touch,’” said Hancock. He went on to say that his second mentor, Davis, would listen to everyone in the band and play accordingly, and that’s what showed him the teamwork in listening and playing as a whole band. He said the he no longer defines himself as a musician, but as a human being, because that covers everything one can be as a global citizen, not just a national citizen of the U.S. “We need to build global citizenry, and I will do everything in my power to do what I can. And I’m sure everyone has the same feeling in their heart to generate the kind of hope for the kind of future that we want the family of men to live in.”
After a short performance of electrifying Lady Gaga renditions by YoungArts Alumni, philanthropist Agnus Gund awarded the Arts Education Award to Alice Walton. To begin, she touched upon Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, where art history courses are also available. With free admission, and with such a push to accessible education, Crystal Bridges is an intellectual threshold for grandparents, teachers, toddlers, and even teenagers. By forging a new generation for art history and philanthropy in the middle of the Ozarks, Walton is transforming the idea of an American art museum. After growing up in a family house on the actual site, Walton felt that building onto the site would seamlessly work to bring art and nature together for the community. In its first year, 300,000 visitors arrived to appreciate and support the museum.
“We have learned a lot about learning from Crystal Bridges,” said Gund as she welcome Walton to the stage. “I admire your determination and dedication. Your respect for creativity and professionalism, your generosity, your brightness, and your idealism about America and Americans. I love Crystal Bridges.” After smiling, thanking Gund and the crowd, Walton said, “One of my early claims to fame was that I was president of the Bentonville Chapter of Future Teachers of America when I was a senior in high school, and I never got to teach—except to substitute a few times. I guess the desire to teach has always been in my DNA.”
She continued, saying, “I had a good college education, but I really believe that my education didn’t start until I started learning about art. And I believe that education becomes 3-D when you learn through art. So anything we can do at Crystal Bridges, and we can do nationally, to help forward that effort and help drive that effort through communities and drive access to art of all kinds—that’s where I want to be, and what I want to be doing. So thank you so much.”
Jeff Koons then presented the Legacy Award to NAA Chair Maria Bell. “As a collector, Maria is known for her refined and distinctive taste, and commitment to art that speaks to her personally in some way. She’s also dedicated to arts philanthropy and to the idea that art in every discipline should be accessible to all,” said Koons. After thanking Bob Lynch Norah Halpern, Carolyn Powers, and David Johnson, Bell said, “I was lucky enough to have the arts in my public high school, and it ignited a love of art in me, but you shouldn’t have to be lucky to have the arts in your school—everyone should have them. That’s really what started this for me.”
Next, MOMA PS1 Director Klaus Biesenbach presented Lady Gaga with the Young Artist Award. “You listen, you learn, you evaluate, you invent, you find form, and you push the envelope—there’s only one of you, and it’s you Lady Gaga,” said Biesenbach. After he handed the award to Lady Gaga (the young, esteemed recipient of 6 Grammy Awards, 13 MTV Music Video Awards, 13 Guinness World Records, and a Songwriters Hall of Fame’s Contemporary Icon Award), she thanked the crowd with a 12-minute speech, highlighting the relationship she has with Biesenbach, and her love for the arts community, saying, “I think it’s very fitting today that it is a curator, and so much more, that is introducing me, or giving me this honor tonight, because that word cure in the word curator—that is the best way that I could define what art has done for me. It has totally cured me,” she said. “Allow the world to come together, allow us all to share our creative processes with each other, and to not be isolated, but to support one another.”
To conclude the 2015 awards, Director Rob Marshall presented the Carolyn Clark Powers Lifetime Achievement Award to award-winning Italian actress Sophia Loren.
“It is so thrilling to see this amazing woman up here tonight, and on behalf of the Americans for the Arts, I am honored to present the 2015 Carolyn Clark Powers Lifetime Achievement Award to the unbelievable Sophia Loren,” said Marshall. “I’ve been very blessed over my long career to have worked with the best of the best—from my co-star to many wonderful directors, and the other artists that bring movies to life. I’m very pleased to have had this chance to learn about the work of Americans for the Arts—to elevate the arts in this country. My late husband and I raised two artists—a doctor and a film director, and I want them and my grand children to be apart of a world that embraces and values the important expression of our human condition. American has been very good to me, and I extend my deepest thanks to my family for their ongoing support and Americans for the Arts, and Carolyn Clark Powers, for this exceptional award. Grazie,” said Lauren.