“There’s Frank Stella right there!” Nora Halpern said giddily as the iconic 78-year-old abstract impressionist wandered through the crowd gathering at New York City’s Cipriani 42nd Street on Monday night. Halpern, an art historian and curator by training, is now the vice president for leadership alliances at Americans for the Arts, the powerhouse advocacy outfit that has been promoting the arts and art education since 1960.
The crowd of 350 had gathered for the organizations’s National Arts Awards gala. Large-scale sculptor Richard Serra, philanthropists Vicki & Roger Sant, and Detroit art maven Madeleine H. Berman were among the evening’s honorees. Halpern, who’d been chatting with the Grammy-award winning bagpipe player Cristina Pato, has been finding the “advocacy side of my life,” she said. Currently, she’s working on the issues of artists’ rights and K-12 arts education. “This morning, we launched an initiative about core curriculum in K-12 education and we’re demanding that the arts be a part of it. It hasn’t been redrafted in twenty years.”
Maria Bell, the evening’s event chair, and president-at-large of the California-based children and arts philanthropy group P.S. ARTS, punched up the issues further. “I am the product of a public school education,” the Rodarte-clad philanthropist said. “I was lucky enough to have art in my [curriculum] and it changed my life.”
Bell recently stepped down as chair of the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. “I grew up in California so I couldn’t understand how they could cut all of those programs out of schools [in the 1907s and ‘80s].” She nodded to the nearby graphic designer activist, Shepard Fairey, to illustrate the second issue of the moment. “And everything about Shephard says everything about why an organization like [Americans for the Arts] matters. He is somebody who has really bumped up against ‘What are the rights of artists to do what they do?’ I think what he and other street artists show is that art is everywhere.”
Fairey reached a pop cultural apex back in 2008 when he created President Obama’s “Hope” poster. His rendering of a glowing orange monkey pod tree served as the backdrop for this event. As the gala’s featured artist, he’d produced fifty signed prints to commemorate the night.
“I did a residency at the Makiki Heights Contemporary Art Museum in Honolulu and there was a monkey pod tree on the grounds,” Fairey said. “I noticed that in Hawaii the symbols of natural beauty are abused as propaganda for the tourists. I liked the idea of making a piece that celebrated the beauty of the tree but also stylized it in a propagandistic way. I’m a big fan of provocative duality.” The poet Paul Muldoon and his wife quickly posed for photographs across the room.
Comedian Ben Stiller presented the Jeff Koons-designed Rabbit Balloon Award to the organization PS Arts. “Koons is working with MIT,” Stiller joked, “to build the world’s largest particle collider with marshmellows. He just hasn’t figured out how to make it sexual.”
Former senator Chris Dodd, the policy head for Americans for the Arts and head of the Motion Picture Association of American, was just about to dig into his fluffy mozzarella and tomato salad, but not before chiming in on what he sees as a key issue in the growth and sustenance of the arts: “Copyright. This year for the very first time in the history of the country, the Bureau of Labor statistics undertook a calculation of what the economic benefit of culture is. Turns out it adds about three points to the GDP. But there’s a global effort on the part of some to create further and further exceptions to the rights of creators and innovators. I’m very worried.”
Senator Dodd arched an eyebrow: “That the appetite for information, while legitimate, grows at their expense.”
Update, October 27: An earlier version of the post incorrectly stated that Americans for the Arts created the National Endowment for the Arts nearly 50 years ago. It was created by an act of Congress.