On The Avenue

The Gordon Parks Foundation Takes Us There

by Ben Diamond Photographed by Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Gordon Parks Foundation
Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Gordon Parks Foundation’s annual gala last night was a celebration of socially conscious art; an impassioned, activists’ cry for civil rights and justice; and, most important of all, the perfect excuse for a whole lot of people to say “shut your mouth” to their seat-mates, Isaac Hayes-style. 

Founded in 2007, the Foundation is dedicated to the twin goals of preserving Parks’ work and advancing his hope for a better world through fellowships and scholarships for young artists and students.

And the evening’s six (!) honorees—all of whom are among the most important and interesting people in America today—are part of that vision too. They included Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author and Atlantic columnist; Ava DuVernay, the acclaimed director of Selma and A Wrinkle in Time; Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; Sally Mann, a photographer; Jamel Shabazz, another photographer, best known for documentary pictures of Black and Hispanic New Yorkers; and the investor Ronald O. Perelman.

As with any evening where social justice and commerce intersect, there were some odd moments, like the spectacle of past honoree Spike Lee introducing Perelman, his friend and fellow Knicks-watcher. Lee saluted the MacAndrews & Forbes CEO for his commitment to charity and the arts. “He’s not faking the funk, either,” he added. “He’s foreal foreal.” (Perlman, for his part mostly talked about Lee, and about how good BlacKkKlansman is.)

But what was inspiring was inspiring—a reminder both of Parks’ impressive body of work, and of the lofty ideals that underpinned it. “I think sometimes people don’t understand the relationship between art and civil rights, but just look at this photograph.” said Ifill, pointing up at the bigger-than-life blowups of Parks’ famous photograph American Gothic that flanked the stage. “[Parks] was able to reflect the humanity of black people. This is not a small thing that we should take for granted. The humanity the dignity and the demand of black people to be full citizens in this country. I could say the words, I could litigate the cases I could argue before courts, but just look at that photograph. It’s all there for you to see.”

That photo also lent itself to one of the evening’s most poignant moments, as artist Deborah Willis (with an assist from Parks himself, in an archival video clip) introduced the grand- and great-grandaughters of Ella Watson, the subject of that famous photograph.

There was a room for fun, too. Once all the honorees had been feted, and dinner had been served, guests were treated to one more treat, as Mavis Staples sang Staple Singers classics like “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend.”

It was an evening which—to borrow a line from that soul group—took us there. 

Additional guests included Gayle King, Harold Ford Jr., Leonard and Judy Lauder, Marcus Samuelsson, Sheila Nevins, Valerie Jarret, Jon Batiste, Sarah Arison, Darren Walker and Mickalene Thomas. Thanks to their contributions, the Foundation raised more than $1 million dollars.


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