Last night's National Arts Awards decorated a wide range of the creative world's heavy hitters. Ed Ruscha, Salman Rushdie, Robert Redford, and arts patrons Sidney Harman and Bank of America's Anne Finucane got kudos for their contributions to a sector of American life that perhaps doesn't (outside New York, at least) always get the official recognition it deserves. Presenters at the 14th annual ceremony, organized by advocacy group Americans for the Arts, included Ken Burns, Nancy Pelosi, and New Museum director Lisa Philips.


Lisa Phillips, Chuck Close. Photo by Patrick McMullan


It's an interesting time for the arts: the lousy economy has clipped supporters' purse strings; at the same time, President Obama's inclusion of $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts in his February recovery bill seems evidence of a pretty art-friendly administration and culture. As Redford put it, addressing an audience that included Dennis Hopper, Vera Wang, and Kehinde Wiley: "There's change in the air, big-time." It was swirling around all those Obama portraits at last year's Art Basel Miami Beach, and the movement earlier this year to have an "arts czar" added to the cabinet.

But with change comes the inevitable opposition. Before Obama stepped in, the Senate had lumped the NEA in with casinos and zoos in an attempt to cut them out of stimulus funding. And the "arts czar" advocates have concluded pretty unanimously that Kareem Dale, the disability-policy advisor doing double duty as the President's arts and culture "special assistant," isn't quite what they had in mind. If you asked the crowd last night, they'd say there's plenty of work to be done. Parts of the audience were visibly unconvinced by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's claim (while she introduced Redford) that "from the earliest days of our republic, we have had an appreciation of the imagination." Those twin American engines, religion and prosperity, still have a tendency to roar louder than the arts.

Still, put this many established talents in the same room and you're bound to create a sense of momentum. Even the non-winners seem to be pushing forward, whether it's through understated wanderings or fresh provocations.

"I'm doing a lot more tapestries, a lot of daguerrotpyes, a lot of nudes and flowers," Chuck Close reported. Meanwhile, Jeff Koons has been exploring a bacchanalian realm.  "Some of my new sculptures are kind of giving it up to the rites of spring," he said. Scale often plays a defining role in his work, and this round has Koons tackling "an average, kind of outdoor-indoor sculpture," he mused. "Maybe about eight feet tall. We're dealing with something that has a kind of physical presence of power, but is not overwhelming"-an appropriate shrinkage, perhaps, given the current art market. But there's hope in the choice of vernal theme.

Speaking of spring, James Frey's latest literary effort will hit bookstores around Easter. It has grand intentions: "I'm currently writing the third book of the Bible. It's about the Messiah walking the streets of contemporary New York City," the author said. "I've just always thought about trying to pull it off: the most audacious, most ambitious, most absurd project I could possibly think of." Don't confuse this one with Monty Python's Life of Brian: "It's deadly serious," Frey stressed. And not likely to please devout believers, either, "They would most likely be hideously offended by it. I'm hoping they all burn it."

Ruscha suggested a little religious provocation of his own during his acceptance speech for the Artistic Excellence Award, when he proposed the award winners collaborate on a film adaptation of Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. "Robert could direct it, Salman could do the screenplay, Anne and Sidney could bankroll it, and I could design the titles," he suggested. "Also, I could art-direct the ‘Wanted' poster for the five of us."

There's nothing funny, of course, about the fatwa Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini placed on Rushdie shortly after the book's publication two decades ago. But it hasn't cowed the author, who was last night's recipient of the Kitty Carlisle Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Arts.

In fact,Rushdie is a few weeks away from completing the screenplay for a slightly less controversial work of his, Midnight's Children. "Just doing some final tweakings," Rushdie said. Then, at the dais, he replied to Ruscha: "Thank you so much for the offer. I'm absolutely, totally up for it. Let's do that. Except I want to be in the movie, too."