The crowd of arts and university leaders stood up and applauded when Tony Bennett entered the Corcoran atrium, and the smiling singer responded by placing his hand over his heart. As he sat down, his touring partner, Lady Gaga, approached and kissed him on both cheeks while the 100 guests craned their necks to watch.
Music royalty took over the Corcoran on Thursday, when George Washington University awarded President’s Medals to Bennett and his wife, arts advocate Susan Benedetto. The couple were celebrated for their significant contributions to arts and arts education.
“My name is Benedetto,” the singer, 88, told the crowd after accepting the medal, the university’s highest honor. “In Italian, it’s the best name. It means ‘the beloved.’ And that is how I feel tonight. Thank you very much.”
The George Washington University President’s Medal was created in 1988 to recognize those who have exhibited courage, character and leadership in their chosen fields. Previous winners include Mikhail Gorbachev, Shimon Peres and Walter Cronkite.
University President Steven Knapp said it was appropriate to honor the couple in the historic Corcoran building. The university took over the facility last year following the court-approved breakup of the gallery and school.
“With this award, we’re looking for people who have made a long and significant contribution to America, particularly in a way that is deeply relevant to the university,” Knapp said. “He is an extraordinary exemplar of a generation that made the American songbook what it is. He’s a leader in arts education, and we’re very fortunate to have so many of his paintings here.”
Although revered for his music, Bennett is also an accomplished painter, and 18 of his works, including one sculpture, were on display for the university’s guests. The paintings, which he signs Anthony Benedetto, included portraits of Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, and landscapes in oil and watercolor of Central Park, Tuscany and Venice. Several works featured in the exhibition are included in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution. Bennett uses his art to raise money, too. His original paintings are produced as holiday greeting cards by the American Cancer Society, with proceeds going to cancer research.
Of course, the medal citation also mentioned the Grammy Awards and hit records he has achieved over his seven-decade career. George Washington University gave Bennett an honorary degree in 2001.
He and his wife, a former social studies teacher, started Exploring the Arts, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to strengthening the role of the arts in public education. Last year, it reached 16,000 students in 23 schools. The couple also founded the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, a public high school in Astoria, Queens, Bennett’s home town.
“We all know the arts are special. They bring us together, they inspire us, and when the arts are taught in school, great things happen,” Susan Benedetto said. “Young people are excited to come to school. They learn better in all of their disciplines, and they begin to experience the joy of their own creativity and celebrate the creativity in others.”
Lady Gaga arrived with her parents, Joe and Cynthia Germanotta, the latter of whom earned a master’s degree from George Washington University. The pop star performs with Bennett at the Kennedy Center on Friday and Saturday, the final shows of a worldwide tour.
“I love our tour,” Bennett said after the ceremony. “It’s great she showed up with her family. It was nice of her to do that.”