The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery rolled out the red carpet for its star-studded guest list of more than 700 people for the 2019 American Portrait Gala this past week. The museum courtyard filled with heads of state, TV personalities, artists and scientists to celebrate the recipients of the “Portrait of a Nation” prize.
Honorees included scientist and Nobel Laureate Frances Arnold, tech entrepreneur and philanthropist Jeff Bezos, the music group Earth, Wind & Fire, composer and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, business executive Indra Nooyi, and fashion journalism visionary Anna Wintour. Journalist Gayle King led the ceremony, which included speeches by Michelle Obama and late-night host James Corden.
When Museum Director Kim Sajet began the gala in 2015, she emphasized the need to honor a diverse array of contemporary sitters and artists. “We ask, ‘Who has made a national impact?’” Sajet says. “We have those people who have really moved the needle in some, often multiple, ways.” The gallery has continued to host the gala biannually as a way to commemorate American icons while raising funds and putting the museum on the map. This year, the event raised more than $2 million to support an endowment for future exhibitions.
Long after the celebrities and socialites went home, six new portraits remained to commemorate the gala’s guests of honor. They are currently on display on the first floor of the gallery, and they will be added to the museum’s permanent collection.
With windswept hair and a crisp white blouse, Frances Arnold exudes regal poise. But the Nobel Laureate says it was “nerve-racking” to be photographed by Katy Grannan, an artist who captures her subjects with a degree of realism that is not always attractive. Grannan photographed Arnold at Caltech, where the chemical engineer is pioneering the use of directed evolution to make enzymes. In her words, her research seeks to “rewrite the code of life to take renewable resources and convert them into the products we need in our daily lives.” Arnold sees science as a way to do something good for the planet. “I care about this beautiful planet that we all share. This is a home that we have to leave in good shape for the next generations,” she says. Arnold was presented by France Córdova, astrophysicist and director of the National Science Foundation.
Viewers of Robert McCurdy’s larger than life rendering of Jeff Bezos may feel like they’re actually standing at the foot of the richest man alive. When asked about his impact on American culture and history, Bezos laughed and said he’d leave that question for others to answer. As the founder and CEO of Amazon, owner of the Washington Post, and head of aerospace company Blue Origin, Bezos’s influence cannot be overstated. Still, the tech mogul chose his son, Preston, to present him with his Portrait of a Nation Prize. The 19-year-old didn’t hesitate to accept the opportunity to support his father, saying he is “so proud of everything he’s done.” Many of the achievements his father is being honored for have been in the works for a lifetime. Referring to Blue Origin’s research on space exploration, the senior Bezos says, “There are things in my heart that I’ve been working on, in some sense, since I was a little kid, because I’ve been thinking about them since I was five years old.”
Earth, Wind & Fire (and Clive Davis)
Bruce Talamon’s 1978 image of Earth, White & Fire enshrines the spunk, glitz and power of the iconic band. Philip Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson accepted the award, which also honored Maurice White posthumously. “Our contribution to American culture by way of our music will live on forever in this great legacy of portraits that you see here in the gallery,” says Philip Bailey. The trio continues to perform around the world, keeping alive the legacy of hit classics like “September” and “Shining Star.” Clive Davis, who launched the band to stardom when he signed them to Columbia Records in 1972, presented the award. The trio wrapped up the awards ceremony with a performance of a few of their hits. “To see them today in person, they’re as electrifying as they were when they first began,” Davis says.
While posing for photographer Mark Seliger’s at the edge of roof four-stories high, Lin-Manuel Miranda was thinking about how Seliger’s image of him may hang among the American greats for years. He did everything in his power to look less frightened than he felt. The composer, lyricist and actor of musical sensation Hamilton, draws on one of the play’s central themes when reflecting on his portrait. “You don’t get to choose how history remembers you—it’s decided by those who survive you,” he says. His portrait provides a mere snapshot of his life and accomplishments, reminding him of how much remains to be popularly known of figures like Alexander Hamilton. And by diversifying the portraits inducted into the Gallery, this record of American history becomes more nuanced. “In the past few years, we’ve seen a more diverse crop of inductees, and I think that brings more excitement to the National Portrait Gallery,” Miranda says. “When we tell different types of stories, a fuller version of America gets reflected back.” Miranda was presented by former First Lady Michelle Obama, who was an early supporter of Hamilton and Miranda’s “dream presenter.”
When Indra Nooyi got a call from the Portrait Gallery, she thought it might be a joke. The former CEO of Pepsi-Co has certainly made waves in the business world, but she never expected to see herself memorialized in a national museum. “To be an immigrant, a South Asian immigrant, an immigrant of color, a woman, and to be included in the Portrait Gallery really says that we are in a country where people look for people who make a positive impact and celebrate them.” Nooyi chose artist Jon R. Friedman to paint her portrait, and she says, “He brought me to life in incredible ways.” Her heritage and life’s work are represented by family photos, a PepsiCo business report and a Yale School of Management hat in the background. Nooyi was presented by Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Anna Wintour’s portrait is not available for publication. The longstanding editor-in-chief of Vogue was photographed in her home by Annie Leibovitz. Wintour was presented by James Corden, actor, comedian and host of The Late Late Show.
The portraits are on view in the exhibition "Recent Acquisitions" through August 30, 2020 at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.