Columbia University School of the Arts Holds First Annual Scholarship Benefit

April 03, 2019

Last night at the Lenfest Center for the Arts, Columbia University School of the Arts held its first annual spring party and scholarship benefit. The evening, hosted by Dean Carol Becker and event chair Katharina Otto-Bernstein ‘05, honored Leonard Tow, Founder and Chairman of The Tow Foundation, in recognition of his extraordinary passion for theatre and its artists; artist Kiki Smith, in recognition of her brilliance as an artist, and commitment to the next generation of practitioners; and writer and producer Beau Willimon ’03, in recognition of his daring approach to creativity as a transformative force in society. Guests were also treated to sneak peeks of new work by faculty members David Henry Hwang and Lynn Nottage.

Throughout the evening, guests mingled with students, alumni, and faculty from the School. All proceeds from the evening will go directly to funding scholarships and fellowships for Arts students pursuing MFA degrees in Film, Theatre, VIsual Arts, and Writing.

“Last night the School of the Arts hosted its first Spring Party to raise scholarship dollars for our students. It was a great success,” said Dean Carol Becker. “The Party was elegant, fun, and meaningful. We honored three great people—Len Tow, Kiki Smith, and Beau Wilimon––all different, all deserving. We celebrated their work and their relationship to the School. We also showed off our fabulous Lenfest Center for the Arts and how perfectly gorgeous that space can be for such an event.”

The evening began with a cocktail hour and art showcase activating each floor of the 60,000 square-foot Renzo Piano-designed building. Guests explored the building’s state-of-the-art venues, including the Katharina Otto-Bernstein Screening Room, which showed short films by MFA Film alumni, and the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Gallery, where the MFA Visual Arts First Year and Modern and Contemporary Art (MODA) Curates exhibitions are on display through April 14.

Dinner was served in The Lantern, a convertible open space on the top floor of the building, where windows line the entire southern wall, allowing the night sky over Morningside Heights to provide a breathtaking backdrop for the evening’s program. Throughout the Lantern, prints from the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies were on display and available for purchase, including featured artists Gregory Amenoff, Sanford Biggers, Cecily Brown, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Jasper Johns, Nicola López, Kayla Mohammadi, LeRoy Neiman, Dana Schutz, Arlene Shechet, Kiki Smith, Sarah Sze, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tomas Vu, and Kara Walker.

As guests sat down to a dinner catered by local Harlem eatery Red Rooster Harlem, Tony Award-winning Broadway producer and double Columbia alumnus Ron Simons (CC'82, BU'89) kicked off the program as master of ceremonies.

The first honoree of the evening was Leonard Tow, Founder and Chairman of The Tow Foundation and Chief Executive Officer of New Century Holdings, LLC. Dr. Tow was presented by Dean Carol Becker, who said, “Len Tow’s success in all his life’s endeavors demonstrates that true vision is the ability to see what is coming by looking closely and fearlessly at what is already here, and by trusting one’s own creative instincts, and by focusing on the social good.”

Dr. Tow was previously Chairman and Chief Executive of Citizens Utilities Company and Century Communications Corp. Founder and Director of Centennial Cellular Corp. He is graduate of Brooklyn College, and holds doctoral and master’s degrees from Columbia University. He taught at Columbia, Brooklyn College, Hunter College, and New York University. Dr. Tow serves on several boards, including Lincoln Center Theater and Educational Broadcasting Corp. He is a Trustee of Brooklyn College Foundation and the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, and a Director of AMC Networks.

Next, artist and Visual Arts professor Sarah Sze presented honoree Kiki Smith, an acclaimed multidisciplinary artist known for a constantly evolving body of work investigating the human condition and the natural world. Smith’s work has been featured at five Venice Biennales and numerous solo exhibitions worldwide. Among her many awards and recognitions are TIME Magazine’s “TIME 100: The People Who Shape Our World” (2006); the 2013 U.S. Department of State Medal of Arts, conferred by Hillary Clinton; and the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center. She is an adjunct professor at NYU and Columbia University.

“I have had the great gift to be here because the students here are really bright and they’re really committed and they really show up for themselves,” Smith said. “It’s been enormously enriching in my life to be around the students here.” She spoke also about the importance of the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies, providing a space for the vital intersection of students and working artists. “[Students] need mentorship in a way that is about real work, it’s not about just our ideas, it’s about seeing things come to fruition.”

The final honoree of the evening was screenwriter, playwright, producer, and showrunner Beau Willimon, presented by Christian Parker '98, Professor of Professional Practice and Chair of Theatre.

Willimon recounted his formative years at Columbia, both as an undergraduate in the Visual Arts department and a graduate student in the Theatre program. “I can see the window from here where I wrote some of my very first plays,” he said, referencing the crucial mentorship he received from faculty members Tomas Vu Daniel, Kiki Smith, and Annette Insdorf as he began on his path as an artist.

“What a miracle it is that art gets made at all,” he said. “There are so many challenges that one has to overcome in trying to create a piece of art…You have people who are in this school right now who are about to embark on a life of complete uncertainty and instability, where the chances of any financial success or stability are not at all guaranteed.” Willimon considers being an artist more of a vocation, a calling more than a career. “It’s your oxygen and you suffocate without it,” he said. He thanked guests for their contributions to a future generation of artists, giving them “just a little more freedom to be able to make miracles happen... There are a lot of people who aren’t in this room who are going to benefit from it in ways that are life-changing.”

Willimon is the creator of Netflix’s House of Cards as well as Hulu’s The First. He co-wrote the film Ides of March, based on his play Farragut North, for which he received an Academy Award ® nomination. He also wrote Mary Queen of Scots, starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie His plays include Lower NinthFarragut NorthSpirit ControlBreathing Time, and most recently, The Parisian Woman on Broadway. Willimon serves as president of the Writers Guild of America, East. He received his BA from Columbia College and MFA from the School of the Arts.

“At the core, we featured the work of students and alumni in all disciplines,” Dean Becker said of the party. “The feeling in the room was one of pure excitement and joy.”