Just days after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences staged the most streamlined and entertaining Oscars ceremony in memory, the Texas Cultural Trust, an arts advocacy group, did the same with its Texas Medal of Arts gala.
As with the Oscars, a few of the speeches ran on. But in both cases, even those excesses stayed entertaining, or at least educational.
Let’s start with the onstage talent at the Long Center.
I hereby nominate Ray Benson’s version of “Miles and Miles of Texas” — originally recorded by Bob Wills and written by Tommy Camfield and Diane Johnson — to replace “Texas, Our Texas” as our state anthem. After kicking off the evening with a festive rendition of this beloved road song, Benson remained the warm voice of the awards through the video tributes as well.
Always finding her balance, Lauren Anderson made an exquisite emcee. The former Houston Ballet prima ballerina could have a new role as permanent host of this biennial ceremony.
The Long Center Select Ensemble of young performers, slated to lead the Greater Austin High School Musical Awards in April at the Long Center, gave us several rousing Broadway-style numbers, while reminding us of a theme hammered home all evening — the Cultural Trust’s role in arts education.
Top Austin actor Marc Pouhé declaimed a beautiful section from medal-winner Stephen Harrigan’s upcoming book, “Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas.” It illustrated another of the night’s braided themes: Immigration and inclusion, in this case regarding the fate of refugees in our state after the Vietnam War.
More young people performed admirably, but they encountered stiff competition from Broadway star medalist Jennifer Holliday, who raised the rafters with her version of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Later, fellow medalist Boz Scaggs closed down the show with extended renditions of “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle.”
The other honorees did themselves honor with their speech-making. Craig Hella Johnson spoke about the power of combining disparate voices while accepting for Austin’s Grammy Award-winning choir, Conspirare. Craig Dykers and Elaine Molinar, originally from San Antonio and El Paso, talked about designing architecture that shapes the human experience. Trenton Doyle Hancock, whose animation-inspired art is admired everywhere, thanked his mother and grandmother and others who encouraged his creativity. Harrigan recounted the evidences of creativity — some going back many thousands of years — that he encountered while traveling the state for five years to research his book.
Brandon Maxwell, a fashion designer originally from Longview, spoke the longest and generated the most laughs, especially regarding his muses like Houston socialite Lynn Wyatt, who introduced him to the podium and looks as smashing as ever. Photographer Mark Seliger’s speech was shorter and drier but no less funny as he related highlights of his career journey. Martha Villarreal, principal of the Vidal M. Treviño School of Communications and Fine Arts in Laredo, detailed the center’s history and accomplishments.
That left Matthew McConaughey, the biggest celebrity among the medalists, who went all philosophical about the art of life and the life of art, especially as they relate to being a parent, nodding to his three children along with his wife and mother on the front row.
Afterward, many of the guests filtered into a tent raised on the H-E-B Terrace for a fine meal and much ardent conversation.
One does not always acknowledge the people behind the scenes, but in this case, it would be criminal to omit Heidi Marquez Smith, Jennifer Horn Stevens, Rod Caspers, Ginger Morris and Paul Beutel, as well as co-chairs Leslie Blanton and Leslie Ward.
After all, the best-ever Medal of Arts gala didn’t stage itself.
Texans make history
It turned into unofficial “San Antonio Night” at the Bullock Texas State History Museum during its annual Texas Independence Day Dinner.
Both of its History-Making Texan honorees — grocery titan Charles Butt and conjunto king Leonardo “Flaco” Jiménez — are sons of our sister city to the south.
Therefore, most of the quite formally dressed assembly were out-of-town strangers to this columnist. Among the sprinkling of Austinites, the almost universal response to the evening was surprise that the modest H-E-B family leader agreed to accept the honor.
We’re delighted he did.
To no one’s surprise, he did not speak. And his tribute video focused heavily on his philanthropy, including his profound advocacy for public education, including support of anti-voucher groups. Do not forget that Butt has pledged $100 million to build a center on a spectacular piece of West Austin land to train school leaders.
As for Jiménez, his tributes concentrated on the appeal of his music across a wide range of genres. His six decades producing Tejano and conjunto music have made him the definition of a cultural ambassador for our state. Jiménez did give a rambling but often funny acceptance speech.
Lest we forget, the dinner, which reportedly grossed at least $1 million, supports the Texas State History Museum Foundation, which in turn ensures that the facility, which is undergoing a pointedly successful exhibition makeover, remains afloat.
Every year, the foundation seeks suggestions for these honors. We provide the definitive list of honorees in a box with this article so you can see the patterns of tribute and, just as importantly, who has been left out so far.
Bringing back the gala
Not every "gala" is a gala, mind you, yet the Long Center for the Performing Arts’ dressy annual benefit, now dubbed Front & Center, is a true gala once again.
For some time, the Long Center, once known for over-the-top parties, has treated its backers to much smaller revels. Nothing wrong with that. Yet Austin has come to expect a bigger charitable megaphone for its larger nonprofits and their vital missions.
Front & Center reverses that trend.
Certainly not excessive, the new format that premiered Friday places the main action on the Meredith Family Stage — graced by the presence of the namesake family this year — in the manner of the successful Authentic Mexico benefits staged each fall for the Hispanic Alliance.
And no guest should be surprised by this arrangement, since Monica Peraza, founder of the Hispanic Alliance, is now the Long Center board chairwoman.
The second news out of the Front & Center fandango was the overdue recognition for past board chairs who received the new Long Center Icon Award. In this group, of course, was Joe R. Long, the center’s co-namesake alongside his wife, Teresa Lozano Long.
Also handed honors were civic leaders Ben Bentzin, Rusty Tally, Carolyn Lewis, Cliff Ernst, Craig Hester, Patsy Woods Martin and Tom Sellers. One last award went to the center’s current board leader, Peraza.
Aside for some tough beef, the nicely plated dinner pleased our tablemates, which included hosts Eva and Marvin Womack, with whom I had my first extended conversation after all these years and all these events together.
As for the opening number from the Long Center Select Ensemble, this was the third time in three days that I heard Allen Robertson’s catchy new tune, “Color and Light,” and I dutifully sang it for the entire mile-long walk home.
One last piece of news that I have permission to share: Joe and Teresa Long are selling their grand Old Enfield home and will move into a retirement community not far away. What of their museum-quality collection of art, including some top-shelf impressionist paintings? A good number of them go on auction in New York later this spring.
We’ll keep you posted.