Inside the National Arts Awards: Redford, Ruscha, and Rushdie Honored

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Robert Redford, Ed Ruscha, and Salman Rushdie were among the honorees at last week’s 2009 National Arts Awards, presented by Americans for the Arts — the same organization that benefits from the sales of Shepard Fairey and Jennifer Gross’ new publication, Art for Obama.

The award’s ceremony, which was held at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York, was attended by an all-star group of artists, art patrons, politicians, museum directors, gallerists, and celebrities. Among the glamorous crowd were Chuck Close, Jeff Koons, Shirin Neshat, Eli Broad, Vera Wang, Caroline Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, Adam Weinberg, Thelma Golden, Lisa Phillips, Larry Gagosian, Tony Shafrazi, Dennis Hopper, and Kerry Washington. Buoyed by an Obama White House, award presenters and recipients relished the social, economic, and diplomatic roles the arts can now play.

Americans for the Arts president and CEO Robert Lynch got the evening underway by welcoming a full house of guests and declaring that we were there to “celebrate the transformative powers of the arts.” He thanked the artists present; the various chairs and co-chairs, such as Maria Bell and Eli Broad; Kate Davis, who sang and played bass with a jazz ensemble at the cocktail party; and made special mention to Jeff Koons for designing the new award.

New Museum director Lisa Phillips presented the first award, the Artistic Excellence Award, to Ed Ruscha by naming the variety of media and styles he has handled in a masterful way, while adding that he has a “wonderful trait of being supportive of other artists.” After a video, which gave an overview of his long career and body of work, Ruscha suggested that the five honorees, including Bank of America’s Anne Finucane and philanthropist and Harman International founder Sidney Harman, work together on a project. He proposed a film, for which Redford could direct, Rushdie would write the screenplay, Finucane and Harman could fund, and Ruscha would do the titles, as well as the wanted poster.

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns introduced Anne Finucane, who was accepting the Corporate Citizenship in the Arts Award, and pronounced, “While the arts have nothing to do with the defense of our art, the arts defend our country.” For her part, Finucane proudly declared that Bank of America has donated more than $200 million to the arts, but stated, “The last year is not one we would want to repeat,” and added, “as the dust clears, we plan to make things happen again.”

Next up, Paul Auster sang the praises of Salman Rushdie: a friend of 20 years, a supporter of freedom in the arts, and — less seriously — a guy who knows the lyrics of every pop song. Auster proclaimed that writing The Satanic Verses and the challenge met with the death threats imposed upon him by Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa turned Rushdie into a supporter of freedom. Auster summed up his friend’s tale by stating, “Salman Rushdie writes and Salman Rushdie fights, and in that fight he defends us all.”

Accepting the Kitty Carlisle Hart Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Arts, Rushdie quoted Kingsley Amis’ response to receiving the Booker Prize, which goes “I always thought about the Booker Prize as a piece of shit, but I just changed my mind.” Rushdie went on to discuss the fact that when you experience other media it’s outside of you, but that when you read a book, it’s inside you, and that a book can be read in the bath and at the beach without fear of sand messing with it, which makes it a highly advanced form of technology! He then thanked Ed Ruscha for the offer to collaborate, agreeing to do it only if he could be in the movie, too.

After a dinner break, during which Cipriani served the biggest filet mignon I’ve ever seen, along with sides of polenta and broccoli rabe, benefit committee chair Maria Bell thanked the awards ceremony supporters for raising $625,000 for Americans for the Arts. Following her remarks, actress Kerry Washington, who had starring roles in the films Ray and The Last King of Scotland, introduced Andrea Jarrett, a freshman violinist at The Julliard School, who mesmerized the audience with her performance of a complex musical composition and received a standing ovation for it.

Washington was actually listed in the program as the presenter for the Young Artist Award, which she won in 2005 and was supposedly going to Rosario Dawson this year. What happened with the award for Dawson remains a mystery, as does the substitution of Elliot Gerson for Anna Deavere Smith as presenter of the Frederick R. Weisman Award for Philanthropy in the Arts to Sidney Harman. Whatever was afoot, the 91-year-old Harman stayed on point with an unscripted, poetic acceptance speech about “doers, dancers, and artificers of things of the mind and heart.”

Finally, we were at the grand moment of the program: the presentation of a Lifetime Achievement Award to Robert Redford. Robert Lynch introduced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and praised her for her support of the arts; Nancy Pelosi thanked the audience for supporting the arts and addressed the importance of the arts to the economy and culture, and thanked Redford for being a strong advocate for freedom of the arts. And, in the video biography about Redford, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright praised film as a diplomatic tool.

Redford received the second standing ovation of the night and spoke about how he didn’t prepare a speech because after once giving a talk to Utah bankers, where he asked why it was so difficult to get a loan, without getting a flinch or response, he decided it’s best to just wing it. Getting more serious, he said, “My life has been shaped by art, and, in many ways, saved by art.” He spoke about change and opposition representing fear yet he encouraged people to go with change and to make it a positive change.

Motivating the audience to do something meaningful for the arts while the opportunity exists, Redford declared, “It’s too long that art has been on the caboose of the train. It’s a different time now. It’s time for a change. It’s time to grab the moment and tell the true story of art.”

Amy Redford, Sibylle Szaggars-Redford, Robert Redford, and Kerry Washington. Photo: Joe Schildhorn/PatrickMcMullan.com

Bob Lynch and Nora Halpern. Photo: Joe Schildhorn/PatrickMcMullan.com

Tony Shafrazi, Bill Bell, Dennis Hopper, and Eli Broad. Photo: Joe Schildhorn/PatrickMcMullan.com

Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster. Photo: Joe Schildhorn/PatrickMcMullan.com

Chuck Close, Larry Gagosian, and Robert Redford. Photo: Joe Schildhorn/PatrickMcMullan.com

Kerry Washington and Salman Rushdie. Photo: Joe Schildhorn/PatrickMcMullan.com

Dennis Hopper and Jeff Koons. Photo: Joe Schildhorn/PatrickMcMullan.com

Caroline Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi. Photo: Joe Schildhorn/PatrickMcMullan.com

Andrea Jarrett. Photo: Joe Schildhorn/PatrickMcMullan.com

Ed Ruscha and Lisa Phillips. Photo: Joe Schildhorn/PatrickMcMullan.com

Ken Burns and Anne Finucane. Photo: Joe Schildhorn/PatrickMcMullan.com

Elliot Gerson and Sidney Harman. Photo: Joe Schildhorn/PatrickMcMullan.com

Nancy Pelosi and Robert Redford. Photo: Joe Schildhorn/PatrickMcMullan.com