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Cultural Trust stages best-ever Texas Medal of Arts

Michael Barnes
Honoree Jennifer Holliday performs during the Texas Medal of Arts Awards at the Long Center on February 27, 2019 in Austin, Texas. [Suzanne Cordeiro for AUSTIN360]

Just days after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences staged the most streamlined and entertaining Oscar 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 his 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 boat people 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 everywhere admired, thanked his mother and grandmother and others who encouraged his creativity. Harrigan recounted the evidences of creativity — some it going back many thousands of years — that he encountered while traveling the state for five years to research his book.

Brandon Maxwell, the 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 Villareal, 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.

Afterwards, 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.