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Lipkin and others deserve honors bestowed

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 26, 2012 - I was on hand at a meeting back in the early 1990s when the Arts and Education Council came up with the idea of giving awards to honor cultural contributions by individuals and organizations in the region.

A number of ideas were tossed around that evening, including a concern the award had potential of becoming one of those I'll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine prizes, where it's assumed the recipient will respond generously to the giver and on and on from there, or that there's some hay to be made by making a fuss over someone or another.

Although there has been some of that in the two-decade history of the St. Louis Arts Awards -- it is almost inevitable that politics and favoritism come into play in the business of honors - the A&E Council has done a good job recognizing individuals and organizations that are genuinely worthy. The awards given out at the 2012 ceremony the other night in the Khorassan Room at the Chase Hotel fit that description splendidly.

I'll quickly mention all the winners, and then focus on one very special winner, Joan Lipkin.

If anyone ever deserved an award, Lipkin is she.

Here come the others.

Jason Brown took away the Arts Educator of the Year Award. Brown is a soldier in the very real and very serious battle to make certain that public school students are not simply exposed to the arts but are immersed in them.

Actress Linda Kennedy won the lifetime achievement award. Kennedy put on a terrific show, both in her acceptance speech, which was at once warmly appreciative and hilariously disarming, and in a scene performed with Ron Himes from "On Golden Pond," now up at the Black Rep.

Novus International Inc. was honored for Corporate Support of the Arts. Thad Simons, president and CEO of Novus accepted the award with a compelling endorsement of business involvement in the interests of artistic endeavor.

The Contemporary Art Museum won the Excellence in the Arts Award. In 2003 CAM moved into its own building in Grand Center and since has opened 92 exhibitions representing the work of 223 artists, making it a significant regional asset.

The Mabel Dorn Reeder Foundation is a significant regional asset too, even though home base for it is Atlanta. One of its two trustees, Dr. Mabel Purkerson, lives in St. Louis, and she has directed foundation funds to St. Louis arts institutions, and to the Beacon, as well. Purkerson embraces the notion, "He who gives while he lives knows where it goes." The foundation won the Excellence in Philanthropy prize.

Jazz pianist Peter Martin won the Entertainment award. The native St. Louisan has had an amazing career as a performer and a teacher, performing live with many of the legends of jazz and making a memorable appearance in one of my favorite motion pictures, "Good Night and Good Luck."

Joan Lipkin, who swept away the Arts Innovator category, is a special case, however, a brilliant case, and I want to salute her - and the A&E Council for its wisdom in singling her out for one of its special distinctions.

Lipkin's work as a playwright, director, actor, development director, not-for-profit CEO, Jacqueline-of-all-work, company shrink and so forth has been directed forcefully in support of populations that were, when she began her artistic crusade, basically disposable or seriously marginalized.

Although the world now has caught up with her in some ways, injustices remain and the not-too-distant memories of an America inhospitable to or contemptuous of disabled men and women and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender populations remain in high relief in the minds of many of us.

When I first knew Lipkin, she was a stringer for the newspaper, writing art reviews and eking out a living as a freelancer. She was smart, sassy, opinionated and talented. I was enchanted, and we have remained pals ever since. Slowly, but certainly, she came into her own, not as an art critic but as an artist. And through her work, she began the difficult and noble work of using the conventions of the theater to change minds and to transform lives.

Back in her eking-out days she appeared as something of a mess when she came into the office. No more. Nowadays, she betrays in her appearance a certain sophistication of dress and attitude along with her radiance of spirit. The look in her eyes and in her bearing is that of a winner, and as winner, she danced out on stage the other night and spun around in her fancy dress with aplomb.

All of that is rather superficial, I guess, and I'll probably catch hell for mentioning her appearance, but I prefer to think of the way she looks nowadays as outward evidence of an inner grace. As if to prove that, rather than confronting those of us in the audience for our shortcomings in the sensitivity department, she used her minute at the podium to speak of gratitude and civility in public discourse. Here is most of what she said:

"If I am an innovator, it is because I stand proudly on the shoulders of many. Martin Luther King, Max Starkloff, Jane Addams, James Baldwin, Gloria Steinem, Bayard Rustin, Harvey Milk. ... These are but a few of the people I thank, as inspiration and guideposts, for speaking the truth about race, gender, class, disability and responsibility, and whose ceaseless example gives me courage to contribute through my medium: theater and civic dialogue

"As I look around the room, I see many of you who have helped make it possible for me to be here tonight and I am filled with memories and gratitude.

"But I would most like to thank the great city of St. Louis, a city alive in process, a city that both cherishes some of its traditions and craves innovation, a Midwestern city that has been remarkably open to the diverse subjects and themes I am drawn to explore as a contemporary artist who tries to map our complicated world. To its credit, St. Louis is a city that has intuitively understood that a thriving democracy benefits when it represents and hears from its many citizens, whether on stage or in the audience in dialogue.

"[The Arts and Education Council] recognizes this, too. Our awards ceremony tonight represents a kind of ecosystem for a healthy arts environment. Institutional and individual excellence, education, philanthropy and innovation.

"We are all needed.

"Who we are as a community and as a country and who we will be - where we are going - will be reflected in the art we make or support, in the education we provide and in the ways we must learn to talk civilly with one another. Thank you for your support of this important organization, of our great city, of each other and of our future."

No one said anything better all night long than Miss Lipkin, and I can't think of anything better to write either, other than, "Keep it up," and "Thank you very much."

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.