AMERICANS FOR THE ARTS HONORS A MIXED BAG OF THE ART-WORLD INVOLVED AT THEIR ANNUAL NATIONAL ARTS AWARDS BENEFIT AND DELIVERS A STRAIGHT FORWARD MESSAGE
“The thing is: no organization other than Americans for the Arts does what they do,” my neighbor, Ira Silverman, former NEA employee, said to me over a centerpiece of Will Cotton-inspired candy and a steak dinner. "Who else will lobby for the arts—the government?"
We were discussing exactly what these events do, being so seemingly disparate in theme—which is not to say they aren’t exciting. In fact, the odd texture of this one may have lent to the lightheartedness of the evening. The roster for AFTA’s annual National Arts Awards Benefit dinner and ceremony felt a little random at best: B.B. King, Dakota Fanning, Joel Shapiro, art collectors of Des Moines Mary and John Pappajohn, and a Miami school superintendent Alberto Carvalho. I understood that everyone here was loosely related to one artistic practice or another, but the grouping left a few strings untethered.
“They’re here to sell tables,” answered Silverman. “And that’s what needs to happen.” He’s right. Most of our orgs in support of creative programming, arts education and arts awareness are funded by the U.S. government, and we all know what a struggle it is to make a case for filtering in more money from that particular group. The event—a candy-colored cocktail and dinner held at Cipriani on 42nd Street—was a success: it raised over $800,000 in support of the arts and arts education.
After a few heartfelt speeches, each award recipient got to accept a Jeff Koons-designed balloon rabbit statuette after a video montage of praise from friends and admirers. That’s when the similarities between guests began to gel. Tom Cruise and Kurt Russell appeared on screen to talk about the precocious child star Dakota Fanning, winner of the Bell Family Foundation Young Artist Award, and Buddy Guy—in the flesh—presented B.B. King with the Isabella and Theodor Dalenson Lifetime Achievement Award after a touching introduction: “I don’t know if you know this, but I call myself a guitar player. But when I heard [King] doing that the way he do that I said, ‘Buddy you’ve got a lot to learn.’”
Of course the visual artists and their collectors were there to have a chance in the spotlight, too. But perhaps the most telling exercise of the night was finding a connection between a co-chair and a nominee. For example, Carolyn Powers, in a video preceding his speech, said, “B.B. King just happened to grow up on the plantation next to my grandfather’s plantation." It felt the most transparent of many loaded statements. Next to speak was Guy, who started his dedication with "I didn't know what running water was until I was 17."
The truth is, many people can't help but start out with money, and many artists have none. Therefore, benefits as delightfully all-encompassing as this need to happen, and they have to take place in New York City, where, as Dakota Fanning mentioned before dinner, is the place where "you can just be one of the crowd," (even if you're extremely famous, extremely rich, or none of the above).
Ms. Fanning seemed less concerned about her award's title than she was about showing up. "Is the award concerning your work at school?" I asked her. "No, not really. I think this is more for my work in films, but I am going to NYU and I have created my own concentration." Either guess seemed valid, since other recipients were awarded for their work in managing art collections and in avoiding cut-backs in one school district's arts education program after the recession. Besides that, before any explanations, I was told that the 19-year-old actress was getting recognized for her approach to gender studies. As she told me, her major is "about the portrayal of women in culture and film."
She must have a lot of personal experience to inform that work, right? "I'm really just taking different classes at Gallatin, where I go, and taking things from those classes. I'm far away from graduating and having to do all that final stuff. I'm just enjoying learning."
Which is, after all, what the night was about. Everyone, even those destined to excel in areas other than the arts, should be allowed to explore that work, and vice versa. In her acceptance speech, Fanning said that so much attention is paid to the downfalls of being raised on camera, but that "there are so many benefits, which no one ever talks about." Traveling, exploring emotions, and meeting interesting people is as much a part of "the arts," as is recognizing the importance of imagination in all fields (poignantly pointed out by Superintendent Alberto Carvalho in his speech). It's about taking from the rich and giving to the underpaid, but it's also about diversifying the role and the criteria of the artist. Inviting such a strange medly to AFTA's function sold seats, but it in the end also spoke, endearingly, for how big the so-called art world really is in America.
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF BFANYC.COM