Monday, November 25, 2013

Washington Social Diary

The class picture with award winners and presenters.
by Carol Joynt

Genius is a quality that rarely is the point of a Washington social event, but it was at the heart of a dinner for 250 invited guests who gathered in the Kogod Courtyard of the National Portrait Gallery. Smithsonian magazine hosted the American Ingenuity Awards, created only last year by editor-in-chief Michael Caruso.

Last year’s splendid dinner was simply a revelation for anyone who regularly travels the gala circuit. Caruso worried that this year’s event might not measure up, that it would experience a “sophomore slump.” He can put that worry to rest. 
The evening's hosts, Ari Shapiro of NPR and Smithsonian magazine editor-in-chief, Michael Caruso
Washington, in its sometimes endearingly stubborn way, likes to remain childish in its party life. It's popular here to have “proms” and call them that (at the lowest end, just Google “White House Correspondents Association dinner”). If Caruso wants to go there, the American Ingenuity Awards franchise gives him the lock on the prom for smart people. But my guess is he aims higher. And, why not? As with movie stars and politicians, Mensa members, too, enjoy coming to the nation's capital to be honored. It’s a mix of generations, where even the youngest act adult and the oldest remain young at heart. To be a guest among them is uplifting. I like to think that with so much intellectual wattage in the room some of it infuses the air and we all go home a little smarter.

The Kogod Courtyard is one of Washington’s special party places. It’s a massive space, but hemmed in comfortably by ancient walls and with a sweeping lattice roof that in daytime is a skylight. There’s a slate floor and tall trees, and at parties the lighting is blue and projected with a dappled almost liquid quality. And yet, even with all that grandeur, an intimate dinner feels intimate. Caruso and his team of event planners can’t imagine using any other space for their dinner.
The American Ingenuity Award, designed by Jeff Koons, who was also a presenter.
The beautiful Kogod Courtyard of the National Portrait Gallery, painted with dappled blue light, is an intimate setting regardless of its grandeur.
Musician David Byrne, one of the presenters, spoke for many in the room when he began his remarks with this one word: “Wow.” He was there to introduce his friend and occasional collaborator Annie Clark, who performs and records under the stage name St. Vincent.

She won the performing arts award. Byrne, in a loopy and charming way, gave a tutorial on the challenges and joys of creating innovative music. He practically performed his words, too, even at one point clasping his hands together and grinning. “This whole thing is really exciting.”
The Secretary of the Smithsonian, Wayne Clough, welcomes the 250 invited guests. No one had to buy a ticket for this dinner.
Michael Caruso, who created the American Ingenuity Awards, talked about President Lincoln, calling him one of the nation's most "cutting edge" presidents.
Saumil Bandyopadhyay and David Byrne on stage.
Also among the presenters was artist Jeff Koons, who’s recent success at auction gave Caruso a chance to get off a good one from the stage: “Just last week Jeff broke the record for the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist, $58.4 million dollars. So, Jeff, you’re picking up the bar tab later on.”

Koons and Byrne were joined as presenters by Hubble Telescope astrophysicist and Nobel Laureate, Dr. Mario Livio; another Nobel Laureate, Dr. John Mather; U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin; Dr. Carol Greider, the director of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University, and NPR’s Ari Shapiro, who also served as the evening’s emcee.
David Byrne used one word to describe the evening: "Wow." Jeff Koons, fresh off a very good day at Christie's.
Presenter Claire Shipman. David Aitken: Stand up, turn around, ask a question.
Choosing the award winners is a group effort by the Smithsonian Institution family, including directors, curators and staffers. “Each winner is embracing the Smithsonian’s mission to increase knowledge and shape the world of tomorrow,” said Caruso.

Last year, for example, the winners included Benh Zeitlin, director of Best Picture Oscar nominee “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and mastermind of Tesla Motors; musician Esperanza Spalding and Jack Andraka, a 15-year-old who invented a landmark test for early detection of pancreatic cancer. The youth winner this year, MIT freshman Saumil Bandyopadhyay, is 18, but his mother pointed out he was 15 when he invented his infrared radiation detector.
In the foreground, mechanical engineer Adam Steltzner and Caroline Hoxby. Both won American Ingenuity Awards.
Dave Eggers, Mimi Lok, and Ari Shapiro.
Caroline Hoxby, Mario Livio, David Byrne, and Adam Steltzner.
A laugh and a handshake after the formal part of the evening, St. Vincent, Shapiro, Bryne, Caruso, and Steltzner.
The 2013 American Ingenuity Award winners:

Mr. Doug Aitken (Visual Arts). His newest installation, “Mirror” is projected on to the Seattle Art Museum and changes in real time to reflect weather, pedestrian traffic and other activity. In Washington, he projected “Song1” on the exterior of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
Mr. Saumil Bandyopadhyay (Youth Award). His unique infrared detector may one day reduce car crash rates by allowing vehicles to sense each other in fog or darkness, according to Smithsonian.
Friends and collaborators, musicians David Byrne and St. Vincent.
Mr. Dave Eggers & Ms. Mimi Lok (Social Progress). These San Franciscans developed the non-profit Voice of Witness that uses oral histories to bring attention to stories of human rights injustices throughout the world.
Dr. Caroline Hoxby, Stanford University (Education). She is finding talented children in poor families and helping them navigate their way to the best colleges.
Dr. John Rogers, University of Illinois (Physical Science). He is a materials scientist who creates innovative biodegradable devices that help in medical research. While on stage he popped one in his mouth. A few minutes later assured the audience “the device I ate earlier is about to dissolve and by tomorrow it will be gone.”
Dr. Michael Skinner, Washington State University (Natural Science). He has identified how exposure to man-made chemicals can be passed down to us from our ancestors and by us to future generations.
Dr. Adam Steltzner, NASA (Technology). He may have the swagger and pompadour of Elvis, but Dr. Steltzner devised the landing technology that got the rover “Curiosity” safely onto Mars. He is with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
St. Vincent (Performing Arts). She was the only honoree who performed, doing two songs from her new album, “Love This Giant.”
Dr. Caroline Winterer, Stanford University (Historical Scholarship). In her work as a historian at Stanford University, she has created a comprehensive record of Benjamin Franklin’s communications that proves her view he was doing social media in the 18th century. Yes, before Facebook and Twitter, Ben got his thoughts out there.
The last to be honored, St. Vincent, also performed two songs from her new album, "Love This Giant."
While it would be easy to assume a room full of smart people would translate as stiff and stuffy, that was not the case at the Ingenuity Awards dinner. For example, guests jumped up out of their seats when Doug Aitken asked them to get up, turn around and ask a question of the nearest person. I don’t know whether any questions got asked – that can be awkward on demand – but we did enjoy something akin to the 7th inning stretch.

And one more thing:
unlike most Washington dinners, where guests start peeling away toward the doors around 9 o’clock, that did not happen on Tuesday night. They ate their four-course dinner of consommé, halibut, beef and dessert and stayed put through the last words, which came from Ari Shapiro: “Electricity. Kite. YOLO.”
After dessert was served the guests remained at their tables until the end of the awards program.

If your Thanksgiving plans include Washington and you want something else to do in addition to turkey and football, why not try:

• A visit to the Freer/Sackler Gallery to tour “Yoga: The Art of Transformation.” The exhibition runs only into January. It will set your mind right for the crazy holiday season ahead.
Three Aspects of the Absolute from “Yoga: The Art of Transformation.”
• Ice skating in Georgetown. There’s a relatively new rink at the Washington Harbour complex on the banks of the Potomac River. It’s a good size and is ringed with restaurants. It’s a fun and happy place.
• Eat at Rose's Luxury on Capitol Hill.  Its status as the next big thing has been realized. It’s all the rage and rightly so. Chef/owner Aaron Silverman created a delicious, cozy and charming scene; what would result if Austin and Brooklyn hooked up and gave birth to a restaurant. (Direct from Austin they have Tito’s vodka and Cuvée coffee and the general manager’s last gig was at Uchiko.) But it’s also very Washington, circa right now.  Have the Kusshi oysters, with “dark & stormy” granita, the pork sausage, habanero & lychee salad, the Cacio e Pepe, the smoked brisket, the pickle-brined fried chicken.  They serve dinner Monday through Saturday. No reservations, but the bar upstairs is just fine if there’s a wait. If it’s a birthday, let them know because they do good birthday. 717 8th Street Southeast, 202-580-8889.
Elizabeth, one of the friendly servers at Rose's Luxury.
The kitchen counter at Rose's Luxury, one of the dining options that include tables or the upstairs bar. The tables and exposed cinder block walls at Rose's Luxury. The space was an alley that was enclosed to create the restaurant.
Happy Birthday at Rose's Luxury, but this is only the beginning of the extravaganza.
• If you have time for the theatre, “If/Then” with Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp is finishing up its pre-Broadway tryout. The musical about a city planner (yes, you read that correctly) is at the National Theatre through December 9. Once upon a time all kinds of Broadway plays did their out-of-town tune-ups at the National. Here’s hoping this is the start of a trend. And since you’ll be only a 5 minute walk from the Ellipse, walk over to check out the National Christmas Tree as it gets decorated in advance of its official lighting, which is December 6. 

Wishing all of you a Happy Thanksgiving.
Georgetown on Saturday afternoon, November 23.
Photographs by Carol Joynt.

Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt