I have attended the majority of galas in New York at least once - except for the National Arts Awards held at Cipriani 42nd Street on Monday, October 22, 2018, with cocktails beginning at 6:30 PM. While most of my friends were at the competing Angel Ball I was wondering if this event would be as exciting or glamorous.
While there may not have been socialites flying in from St. Tropez for the evening, the crowd was as stellar as they come. There were creative icons such as Jeff Koons, Julie Kent, Peter Gelb, Andrew Goldstein, and Zac Posen. Moreover, illustrious honorees Ann Ziff, Justin Peck, Mavis Staples and the legendary Ai Weiwei were paid homage to by luminaries Renee Fleming, Tiler Peck, Stephen Colbert and Alexandra Munroe.
The cocktail hour contained a who's who of artists and their impresarios-a world I am mostly unfamiliar with. The attire of the attendees was mostly understated for a New York gala with some creative exceptions. Zac Posen, accompanied by Victoria's Secret model Cindy Bruna wearing one of his elaborate designs, just returned from London after the Royal Wedding where he dressed the bride Eugenie for the after party. He said it was loads of fun but was reluctant to provide any additional information. Bruna said she was preparing for the Victoria's Secret show which was being held in two weeks at an undisclosed location. Posen then presented the Arts Education Award to Virginia McEnerney, an award he had received in 1999 and which he considered to be a seminal point in his creative career.
Talk show host Stephen Colbert is similarly a frequent topic of conversation, and he presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to 79-year-old Mavis Staples who delightfully remarked, "I don't want to sound conceited but I deserve this award." Mavis said she was proud to receive the same award as her dear friend Aretha, whom she called "the greatest" and said G-d wasn't through with her yet. Dinner was then served until 9 PM at which point co-chair Sarah Arison introduced a spectacular performance by National Young Arts Foundation Alumni who had the audience on their feet with their rousing rendition of "I'll Take You There."
Opera legend Renee Fleming, who unfortunately did not sing, presented her good friend philanthropist extraordinaire, Ann Ziff, with the Philanthropy in the Arts Award. Ziff whose mother was legendary opera singer Harriet Henders is Chairman of the Metropolitan Opera and Vice Chairman of Lincoln Center. Fleming said Ann can "charm your socks off" and that despite her lofty associations she embodies an incredible warmth, humility and joie de vivre - I can attest to that.
She remembers Ann handing her a pair of earrings that she admired 25 years ago on the slopes in Aspen. Ann now has an eponymous jewelry company called "Tamsen Z" but Fleming remarked Ann herself was the real jewel. She also said Ziff had more energy than anybody she knew as she was able to party all night and then play five hours of tennis the next morning. Ziff received a standing ovation as we were treated to a film of Ziff where General Manager of the Opera, Peter Gelb, remarked that she was one of the largest supporters of the opera ever. Ziff, in her typical understated manner, said she was blessed with great fortune that enabled her to support great causes and if in some small measure she made a difference she was very grateful to have the opportunity.
Ziff was undoubtedly the star of the evening and is one of the premier supporters of the Arts having contributed $30 million to the Metropolitan Opera in 2010. Some other major cultural players in the New York scene include dancer Tiler Peck who presented the Young Artist Award to Justin Peck, who she pointed out she was not related to. Tiler said that Justin would soon be choreographing a West Side Story film in collaboration with Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner and said that many had compared Justin to master George Balanchine.
The most educational part of the evening for me was the presentation of the Outstanding Contribution to the Arts Award to Ai Weiwei who was nowhere to be seen until he arrived on stage. I was unfamiliar with the work of this giant and was fascinated to learn of his use of art to protest the Chinese Government's stance on democracy and human rights. Weiwei was imprisoned for 81 days after being arrested at Beijing Capital airport in 2011 and ended up in the hospital with a concussion after being beaten by guards. He was allowed to leave China in 2015 and now resides in Berlin while working on installations and traveling extensively.
His famous exhibition entitled “Sunflower Seeds” was exhibited at the Tate gallery in 2008 and allowed visitors to walk across and interact with the seeds. Weiwei recalled painting portraits in Times Square for $10 a piece and after selling one thousand pieces, which he did not pay taxes on, using that money to pay his yearly rent. He concluded with the thought-provoking remark “I almost believe art can make some difference"- an inspiring conclusion to an unusually profound evening.