Tony Bennett Wins Shiny Gold Jeff Koons Balloon Rabbit at National Art Awards
The singer and painter picked up a lifetime achievement award.
The painter and musician didn’t break into a dance number with congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who presented him with a lifetime achievement award at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York (a video screened prior to the acceptance speech showed him shimmying at a 2015 Kennedy Center concert in Washington, DC, with Lady Gaga), but Bennett showed no signs of slowing down. “I want to keep going,” the singer announced. “I don’t care to retire.”
Bennett may be from New York, but the night was heavy on Bay Area references. Longtime San Francisco arts champion Roselyne “Cissie” Chroman Swig received the philanthropy in the arts award for her over five decades of service on the local, national, and international levels.
In her remarks introducing Bennett, Pelosi, who has lived in San Francisco since 1969, made a point of mentioning that the singer first performed his signature hit, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” at the city’s Fairmont Hotel, then owned by Swig and her husband, in 1961. Pelosi was in attendance earlier this year when a statue of Bennett was unveiled on the spot in honor of his milestone birthday.
Bennett and Swig were honored alongside artist and filmmaker Doug Aitken; who won the outstanding contributions to the arts award; composer and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, the recipient of the Ted Arison young artist award; Susan and David Goode, winners of the legacy award, and the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, presented with the arts education award.
Large-scale artworks by Robert Rauschenberg decorated the room, while alumni of the National YoungArts Foundation’s program for emerging artists performed a musical tribute to Bennett and Spalding, blending their musical styles.
If judged by the trophies alone, the National Arts Awards are clearly the Oscars of the Art World, with each winner receiving a shiny gold Balloon Rabbit statue designed by Jeff Koons. The artist and his wife were co-chairs, along with Sarah Arison, Martha Goode Mielnik, and Nora C. Orphanides, for the evening.
“In many ways, the arts and humanities reflect our national soul,” wrote President Barack Obama in a proclamation printed in the event program. “The arts embody who we are as a people and have long helped drive the success of our country.”
The night was indeed an uplifting one, a welcome opportunity to recognize the things that bring us together even amid the divisive election season. “Thank you for joining us for the third presidential debate,” joked National Arts Award chair Carolyn Clark Powers in her introductory remarks, before assuring guests that “we get to leave the stress of politics behind us and celebrate the arts.”
Aiken called for an end to the divided “silos” separating different art disciplines, saying “when we look at the future of culture, it’s all one forward thrust.”
Spalding then summed up the spirit of the affair best when she spoke of “the expansive truth that art can reveal,” namely that “we really are all connected and share a common experience.”
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