“Artists and their art are the heart and soul of our city,” said Chris Hansen, executive director of the Kranzberg Arts Foundation and recipient of the Arts Innovator Award at the Arts And Education Council’s 28th Annual St. Louis Arts Awards Monday night at the Chase Park Plaza.
Hansen’s words rang true repeatedly as individuals and institutions were celebrated for their contributions – from startup organization to lifetime achievement – were presented with seven awards for those who commit their time, talent and resources to the creative community within the region – and the global ripple effect of nurturing local artists and organizations.
“We’re here to celebrate our honorees, but we are also here to celebrate what happens when we all work together to sustain and grow our vibrant arts community,” said Cynthia A. Prost, A&E president and CEO. “Tonight, we will honor people who have worked to ensure that our next generation and generations to come have outstanding arts opportunities.
“These are people who have spent their lives honing their talents and making it possible for artists and arts organizations to continue to thrive across our region. “The honorees and the exceptional performances you will see on this stage are examples of the magic that happens when we all work together to keep art happening.”
As exciting as the program and fellowship among the members of the community who are critical to visual and performing arts scene in St. Louis through creation, education, administration and philanthropic efforts, was hearing about how each of the respective honorees fell in love with the arts.
Excellence in the Arts recipient Brent Benjamin, The Barbara Taylor Director of the Saint Louis Art Museum, was an architecture student at Rice University when he decided to take an internship at the museum – located right across the street from his school.
This year marks his 20th anniversary at Saint Louis Art Museum, which he fell in love with during a visit ahead of him accepting his position while the city was in the midst of a snow storm. He never looked back and SLAM – and the region is all the better for it.
“He led the initiative to expand the museum, raising $160M, the largest capital campaign for a cultural institution in St. Louis,” said Barbara Taylor. “St. Louis is really fortunate to have Brent, I just can’t think of anybody better to receive an award for excellence in the arts than Brent Benjamin.”
Champion of The Arts recipient Sue Greenberg, Company Manager for the Muny and executive director for the Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts called her path “a series of happy accidents.”
And Michael Neidorff credited his wife for curating his love for culture and the arts.
“When I met Noemi, the theme from the Lone Ranger became the William Tell Overture,” he said just before she accepted their Excellence in Philanthropy Award on their behalf.
She developed her love of classical piano while growing up in Budapest, Hungary – where she began her training. Her parents wanted her to be a ballerina, but she hated it. She would listen to the music that she was forced to dance to and through her natural ear for music, she was able to recite the sounds and mimic them on the piano.
When her family emigrated to the New Jersey area, there were limited in financial resources, but her love for piano and classical music was further fostered through community concerts. Her love for music never wavered – and it became a gift she wanted to pay forward.
“She went to New York to personally play the pianos that were going to be donated to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis,” said OTSL’s new General Director Andrew Jorgensen. “That shows her passion and love [for the arts.]
Amy Freet of the Ferguson-Florissant School District was awarded the Arts Educator of the Year and Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis received the Arts Startup of the Year distinction.
The final award of the evening, which was co-chaired by Solomon Thurman and Pat Smith Thurman and emceed by Adrienne Davis was reserved for Broadway veteran and Muny legend Ken Page.
“Everything I learned about this business I first learned here,” Page said.
He was famously introduced to musical theater as a child while sitting in the free seats of the Muny. He went on to originate roles in such classic Broadway productions as “Cats,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and “The Wiz.”
“I was so fortunate to work with people who were the masters of their art form – Arthur Mitchell, Alvin Ailey and Geoffrey Holder,” Page said. “These were people that I worked with in my youth and I learned things from them. And if you don’t pass that on, it dies – if you don’t pass it on, then it stops with us.”
Performances by The Big Muddy Dance Company, The Sheldon’s City of Music All-Star Chorus fifth grade piano prodigy Jerry Chang and Kennedy Holmes, the 14-year-old former Muny kid who became the youngest finalist in the 15 season history of NBC’s “The Voice” showed that the baton is being passed – and into good hands.