National Portrait Gallery honors Bezos, Miranda, Earth, Wind & Fire

November 18, 2019

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 17: Lin-Manuel Miranda attends the 2019 American Portrait Gala at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery on November 17, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Shannon Finney/Getty Images)

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery held its biannual American Portrait Gala on Sunday night.

This year’s honorees included giants from business, fashion, science and entertainment, including Frances Arnold, Jeff Bezos, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Indra Nooyi, Anna Wintour, and Earth, Wind & Fire.

“Each of the honorees, we have their portrait in the gallery,” National Portrait Gallery director Kim Sajet told WTOP. “We wanted to make a direct connection with what we have up and how we talk about American achievement, people who have made a major contribution to history and culture, then have them come and speak. … None of them have been up before — and quite a few are brand-new commissions.”

See images of the new portraits here and read more about the honorees below.

Lin-Manuel Miranda was an easy choice after creating the Tony Award-winning musicals “In The Heights” and “Hamilton,” not to mention composing Disney’s “Moana.”

“This is the man who single-handedly made Alexander Hamilton hip again, but also history cool again for a whole new generation,” Sajet said.

His prize was presented by former first lady Michelle Obama.

Jeff Bezos was also a no-brainer after founding Amazon.

“Jeff Bezos has really transformed how we think about shopping,” Sajet said. “He started out selling books online and now you can buy basically anything online through Amazon. He has, of course, gone on to diversify by buying Whole Foods Markets, The Washington Post. His company Blue Origin is also looking into space exploration. I remember asking who he would like to have give him the award and he said, ‘I would have had loved to have John Glenn still be with us.’ I think he thinks in those terms.”

Instead, his son Preston Bezos gave him the award.

From the magazine publishing world, the gala honored Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue and artistic director of Condé Nast.

“Anna Wintour has obviously led the way in terms of publications and fashion, but what is kind of amazing about her is that she has really been a mentor to young designers in the fashion industry,” Sajet said. “She really has been thinking about the next generation and encouraging them. Her magazines, Vogue being the longest-running, really combine the most topical conversations happening within its pages at the same time as a love for passion, design and creating a community.”

Her award was presented by late-night host James Corden.

From the science world, the gala honored Nobel Laureate extraordinaire Frances Arnold.

“Frances Arnold is only the fifth woman to receive a Nobel Prize of chemistry,” Sajet said. “She is an extraordinary person who’s actually using science to help solve some of the problems we have with environmental change in particular.”

Her prize was presented by fellow scientist France Córdova.

From the business world, the gala honored Indra Nooyi, who was named one of Forbes’ 100 most powerful women.

“Indra really has broken all sorts of glass ceilings as a woman of a major Fortune 500 company,” Sajet said. “She was the C.E.O. of PepsiCo, but when she was there, she introduced much healthier options. We think of sodas in a bad way, but she brought online a whole line of water and fruit juice options and was very much a pioneer in trying to re-engineer the company to be thinking about health and lifestyle.”

Finally, from the music world, the gala honored Earth, Wind & Fire, including Maurice White (posthumously), Philip Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson.

“What’s not to love?” Sajet said. “They’ve been one of the longest-serving bands, won many Grammys and all sorts of amazing awards. They’ve just got lots of flair and excitement.”

The prize was presented by Hall of Fame producer Clive Davis.

Earth, Wind & Fire even gave a special performance.

“The Kogod Courtyard is the greatest place to have a party in all of Washington,” Sajet said. “It has this glass canopy made by Norman Foster. It’s really an undulating wave of glass. You can imagine when it’s lit up at night, it just sparkles.”

Journalist Gayle King served as the gala’s master of ceremonies.

“Representation matters,” Sajet said. “When you can walk into the gallery maybe as someone who’s come from an immigrant family or an African American or someone who wants to have a career in fashion or design and you can see portraits of people who have done that, you can start imagining larger futures for yourself. … These portraits of the individuals we’re honoring are paving the way for the next generation and leaving the best behind for us to pick up and move forward. That really at the end of the day is the point of the whole event.”

Other celebrity guests included actress Kathy Bates.

The Portrait of a Nation Prize celebrates exemplary achievements in the worlds of science, performing arts, business, fashion and media. The American Portrait Gala was established in 2015 as a fundraiser to strengthen the museum’s endowment for exhibitions and focus attention on the museum’s work with living sitters and contemporary artists.

See images of the new portraits here.

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