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Herb Alpert was mingling with guests in his Santa Monica studio space Friday, just prior to the handing out of the 21stannual Herb Alpert Awards in the Arts, explaining his passion for rewarding artists who are doing avant-garde work in dance, theater, music, visual art, and film.
“I like artists that are experimenting,” said the venerated trumpeter/painter. “They’re not really caring what you think about it as much as what they think about it. They’re not the cookie-cutter-type artists. They’re not the beat of the week.”
But in fact two of the five artists who were bestowed with Alpert Awards on Friday have been in the news recently: Composer Julia Wolfe was announced as the Pulitzer winner for music less than two weeks prior — and on an equally newsworthy but less celebratory note, the Alpert Awards’ winner in the visual arts field, Tania Bruguera, has repeatedly been detained this year in her native Cuba and is currently prohibited from leaving the country, due to the provocative nature of her performance art.
Bruguera’s recent trouble with the Cuban government “wasn’t why she was chosen,” said awards director Irene Borger — her nomination came in before her political troubles grew more serious around the turn of the year. In a letter of thanks read aloud to the crowd Friday, Borger said, Bruguera “hopes she’s going to be here to do her residency at Cal Arts in the coming year. And she will be. But she also has demands for the Cuban government” — just the sign of an un-acquiescent spirit the Alpert Awards are looking for.
Also honored at Friday’s gathering: playwright Taylor Mac, choreographer Maria Hassabi and video artist Sharon Lockhart. The honorees held up a photo of the absent Bruguera in some of their group shots following the luncheon.
As for Wolfe’s award coming right in the wake of her Pulitzer, “complete coincidence,” said Borger, noting that “there are a lot of people who get Herb Alpert Awards who go on to get MacArthurs, Tonys, Obies and things like that.” The idea is for the Alpert to be the first major honor an artist gets as they enter their “mid-career.” (One of Wolfe’s works, “Shelter,” will be performed at Walt Disney Hall on May 31. For the piece that got her the Pulitzer, “Anthracite Fields,” an oratorio about coal miners, Angelenos will have to wait till next March.)
An Alpert Award comes with a $75,000 prize; honorees are selected by committees of artists and academics put together by Cal Arts. “There’s a lot of money that goes toward people who are the hot new thing,” Borger points out. “But to give money and support to people who are really continuing to do their work — and are not masters at the end of their career, but this place in-between — it is unusual. And the nominators have to consider: Who’s midcareer? It’s not post-emerging, but it’s not masterpiece, either.”
One of Friday’s honorees, Mac, spoke about the encouragement he felt when he was nominated but ultimately not accepted for an Alpert Award on four previous occasions. (“Fifth time’s the charm!” he exulted.)
Alpert started his foundation in the early ’80s, and enlisting Cal Arts to administer these awards is a small part of its busy annual calendar. “When I started the foundation, I got a little off-track, thinking, how much can I do?” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “But we’re not the Ford Foundation; we’re not the Ahmanson. We can only make a limited amount of change, and I wanted to earmark it toward about 80 different organizations that are doing great things with kids … and of course, trying to keep jazz alive, our great American legacy.”
Despite Alpert’s relative humility on the philanthropic scale, he joked about being okay with the name recognition that comes with it. “It used to be (just) the Alpert Award for the Arts, and I used to get a lot of nice feedback for that,” he told the crowd. “Now it’s the Herb Alpert, and I get twice as much feedback, and there’s a lot of sugar coming my way. But I can handle it.”
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