The National Portrait Gallery threw a black-tie fundraiser Sunday night to hand out its first five Portrait of a Nation Prizes, a new award it will give perodically to some of the people whose images appear in its collection.
The inaugural round of awards went to baseball legend Hank Aaron, Aretha Franklin, designer Carolina Herrera, sculptor Maya Lin, and Marine Corporal Kyle Carpenter, the youngest Marine to receive the Medal of Honor since 9/11. It was difficult to determine who the biggest draw was—Franklin closed out the night with a seven-song set of classics including “Respect” and “Chain of Fools” and new stuff like a cover of the Barbra Streisand staple “People” (sorry, Babs, it’s Aretha’s song now), but the cheers might have been loudest for Aaron, whom many still consider to be the leading home-run hitter in baseball history.
Museum Director Kim Sajet said the gala raised about $1.75 million, a strong haul for her first major event since taking over the gallery in 2013. Besides the deep-pocketed donors who filled the banquet tables, there was plenty of wattage in the program along with the honorees. Aaron’s award was presented by Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who was a leader of the civil-rights movement that overlapped with the Atlanta Braves great’s career; Herrera received hers from director Lee Daniels; and Franklin got hers mid-set from former Attorney General Eric Holder.
She also said the honorees professions are as diverse as the museum’s artwork that commemorates them. To mark the awards ceremony, the museum is displaying in a first-floor gallery items like Robert Mapplethorpe’s stark 1979 silver-gelatin photo of Herrera, a 1968 photolithographic image of Franklin by poster artist Milton Glaser, a 2010 photorealistic oil painting of Aaron, and a sculpture of Lin made last year on a three-dimensional printer.
“In the age of the selfie, we have embraced and changed the meaning of portraiture,” Sajet said.
As the high-gloss event ended, Sajet, who borrowed a Herrera ballgown for the evening, sold the National Portrait Gallery as the accessible Smithsonian venue. That statement might not have been necessary were it not for moments like the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden throwing a 40th-anniversary blowout at the World Trade Center, but Sajet suggested her musuem’s relationship to the city around it is a bit different.
“I do think the National Portrait Gallery is the ‘local museum,’ ” she told Washingtonian. “We’re downtown, we’re on the Red Line, we’re open until 7.”
Of course, Franklin, patting herself down with a towel and assessing her 47-year-old poster, had just walked by.