Hall of Famer Hank Aaron was the first to bring the crowd to its feet, but the Queen of Soul got them dancing.
The National Portrait Gallery celebrated Aaron, Aretha Franklin and three other over-achievers at its inaugural American Portrait Gala Sunday night. Held in the museum’s Kogod Courtyard, the black-tie affair raised $1.7 million for the museum, and — as several guests noted — it did it with a party in D.C. (It’s Smithsonian sister museum, the Hirshhorn, moved its 40th anniversary gala to New York City to chase art world donors and reach $1.5 million.)
What started as a typical Washington fundraiser — in TV terms, it was more PBS than HBO — turned into a soulful jam thanks to Franklin’s performance. After singing “Amazing Grace” at the piano, the ageless diva launched into “Freedom,” “Chain of Fools” and “RESPECT” — getting the gowns and tuxes out of their chairs and dancing in the narrow aisles.
“What a pleasure it is to be here and share this evening with you all,” Franklin told the crowd.
Earlier Museum Director Kim Sajet said Aaron, Franklin, fashion designer Carolina Herrera, artist Maya Lin and Medal of Honor recipient Corporal Kyle Carpenter serve as powerful role models for all Americans. Portraits of each of the honorees are included in the museum’s collection and were on view in a gallery outside the party.
“These five people make America, and the world, better … through bravery, tenacity, creativity, ingenuity and soul,” said Sajet, who was rocking a borrowed Herrera ballgown for the night.
The cavernous courtyard was transformed into an intimate dinner space with billowing white silk hanging over long tables covered in gold and drizzled with red beads and scarlet roses. In between courses of seafood paella and short ribs, the Portrait of Nation Prizes were awarded to the evening’s honorees. Filmmaker Lee Daniels (“Empire”), Congressman John Lewis, Marine General Joseph Dunford, Jr., the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, architect David Adjaye and former Attorney General Eric Holder presented the awards.
Carpenter, 26, said the evening left him speechless. “I’m honored, humbled and thrilled,” said the Marine who was injured in 2010 by an enemy hand grenade. “When people come here I hope they don’t see my face but I hope they see the scars and service and sacrifice,” Carpenter, a student at the University of South Carolina, said.
Lin posed next to the 3D bodyscan print created by Karin Sander, a work that pushes the definition of portraiture. “It’s so incredible to be honored here,” said Lin, who has a work in the exhibition, “Wonder” that opens the restored Renwick Gallery across town. “I’ve been here for 30 years, but it’s taken people a long time to say, ‘Yeah, she’s an artist.'”
Daniels brought some Hollywood glitz to a Washington crowd that included opera singer Kathleen Battle, Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Sonia Sotomayor and current Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “Newshour” co-hosts Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff served as emcees.
Steven K. Hamp, chairman of the museum’s Commission, emphasized the “fabulous pieces of art” that capture the honorees. The works, by a broad range of artists, include a 3-D print as well as a painting, photolithograph and photographs. “It’s so cool,” Hamp said hours before he was grooving to Franklin’s beat. “These are living national treasures. Why haven’t we done this before?”
Wayne Reynolds, who served as gala chair with his wife Catherine, described the night as a celebration of American achievement. “To have a partnership with the Smithsonian to bring to life the stories of great achievers is a dream come true,” he said.