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Democracy stars at arts awards ceremony

Staff writer

NEW YORK -- The scene in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center was rich with sightings of celebrities. In one part of the room, James Earl Jones chatted with Harry Belafonte. In another, abstract painter Ellsworth Kelly was laughing with Kirk Varnedoe, the curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. In the middle of the crowd, William Kennedy leaned in to talk to friends, while the strains of Gershwin drifted over everything, supplied by a pianist in the corner.

This wasn't an exclusive reception for the artistic elite, however, but the aftermath of an event far more democratic. The 1998 Governor's Arts Awards, the annual recognition by the governor of artists and arts organizations statewide, were presented Monday in New York before art world celebrities and foot soldiers alike.

Amid the evening gowns and business suits were arts administrators, arts-friendly politicians and other advocates from across the state. Although the ceremony was glittered with glamour and peppered with politics, in the final analysis it turned out exactly as intended, as a celebration of the richness of the arts in every corner of New York.

"Everybody was an equal on that stage tonight,'' said David White, executive director of Manhattan's legendary Dance Theater Workshop and himself a 1998 awardee.

For one of those equals, the Albany Symphony Orchestra's David Alan Miller, the award represents nothing less than "validation'' for the orchestra -- and, by extension, for Albany itself -- in the highest echelons of government and the arts.

"That we're even on the governor's radar'' is gratifying, said Miller on the early morning train out of New York Tuesday. As he studied the score of Stravinsky's "Petrouchka'' in preparation for an upcoming performance, the ASO's music director and conductor considered the evening before.

"It sounds ephemeral, but it's significant,'' he said of the notice the award garners. "It's a way of saying you're important and valuable.''

The ASO was one of 12 individuals and organizations honored for their accomplishments and contributions to the arts. Among the other recipients were Kelly, a longtime Spencertown resident, Jones and Latin musician Tito Puente. The Munson Williams Proctor Institute in Utica and North Country Public Radio in Canton were also honored.

The awards were announced in July by Gov. George E. Pataki, who, with his wife, Libby, acted as master of ceremonies. Established in 1966 by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, the award is an honorary title and does not include a cash stipend.

Celebrated violinist Issac Stern presented the award's six-inch starburst trophy to the ASO, calling it a "unique and most important orchestra'' and praising it for its long commitment to American composers. The Albany Symphony is a "center for American creativity to present itself.''

In his acceptance speech, Miller credited a large part of the orchestra's success to "our daring and adventure-loving public in Albany.''

The geographic distribution of the dozen awards seemed orchestrated not to leave any region unrecognized. Organizations from Rochester to Brooklyn were honored, with exactly half of the awards going upstate.

Politics was never far from the surface during the course of the two-hour-and-10-minute evening.

Earle Mack, chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts, which oversees the awards and recommends winners to the governor for his approval, led the cheering for Pataki's commitment to the arts. Pataki has restored arts funding slashed during the Cuomo administration, and through Mack, whom the governor appointed, also raised the profile of the arts awards themselves. Until last year, the first year of the Lincoln Center ceremony, the awards had previously been given out in an unheralded presentation in Albany.

While on stage to present the award to Dance Theater Workshop, however, choreographer Bill T. Jones raised a dissenting voice. Reacting to Mack's exuberance, he reminded the audience that many artists still have no health insurance or retirement benefits, and that support for the arts "can get so much better.''

Other celebrity presenters included Kennedy, Belafonte, Art Garfunkel, Blythe Danner and film producer Ismail Merchant.

The awards ceremony was also used to confer lifetime achievement awards upon dancer Judith Jameson, soprano Beverly Sills and composer Tania Leon. Not among the governor's awards, the lifetime honors were given by the state Commission Honoring the Achievements of Women, which is chaired by Libby Pataki, to mark the 150th anniversary of the women's rights convention at Seneca Falls.

For the second consecutive year, the awards ceremony was videotaped. An hour-long program of the ceremony is scheduled to be aired statewide on PBS stations Nov. 19.

First published on Thursday, October 8, 1998

Life & Leisure

Copyright 1998, Capital Newspapers Division
of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.