Despite the rain, Tony Bennett and his beautiful wife Susan Benedetto turned out at least 500 guests for their “Exploring the Arts” gala on Monday, September 27 at Cipriani’s on Wall Street. The event was held to honor the Target Corporation as well as Joseph Laurita, the CEO of Margaritaville Apparel Group. It was a great success, raising a million dollars for the funding of arts education. ABC News’ Bob Woodruff hosted the event, which included performances by Bennett himself and Natalie Cole. Other notables who walked the red carpet were Alec Baldwin, James Gandolfini, Michael Imperioli, George Hamilton, Harvey Weinstein, and Nancy Sinatra.
ETA was founded in 1999, and has established programs in seven public high schools throughout the city, including the well known Frank Sinatra Jr. School of the Arts in Astoria, Queens. Tony Bennett (still going strong at the handsome, blue-eyed age of 85) and Benedetto are clearly passionate about keeping the arts alive and thriving—their school in Queens has helped make the neighborhood one of the most culturally vibrant in the borough, and the school itself is a great success, with a 976% graduation rate and 97% of graduates going on to college. The school also puts an emphasis on community service. Most of the students come from Queens but Bennett says they have students coming in from all over, even on the shuttle from Staten Island. Taking care to point out that NY is, as Arthur Laurents wrote, the “center of everything”, both Bennett and Benedetto talked about expanding their program across the United States and bringing attention to the need for proper arts education in places besides arty New York. The success of their flagship school suggests they are the right people for that job, even as arts are getting cut in schools around the country.
Still, maybe things aren’t as dire as they seem. Several of the older guests who I talked to, such as Tony Sirico from The Sopranos, mentioned how much more attention is brought to arts education now than when they were kids. Sirico says he wasn’t even aware of the arts when he was younger. Luckily we have guys like Michael Francis, who is the Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer at Target. Michael Francis made some headlines as one of the top execs at Target who made politicized donations to anti-GLBT rights politicians and organizations recently, but less controversial should be the three million a week he says is donated to education funding in America, with an emphasis on arts education. For example, Target helps send at least 100,000 kids a year on field trips to more than 150 arts institutions across the country. It’s nice to see corporations stepping in to pay it back, so to speak.
But the artists spoke the most passionately, perhaps remembering their own artistic adolescences. Natalie Cole, who was probably blessed with one of the best arts education a person could ask for, none the less spoke of the need for artists to pass on their legacy, how she “could never want the younger generation to forget where [the entertainment industry] came from.” On talent, she says pithily that youngsters have to learn the difference between “what you can do with it and what you should do with it.”
In the era where Nickelodeon and Disney churn out manufactured pop stars by the barrel, it’s gladdening to see that the giants of the entertainment industry still care about bringing the arts to those kids from Queens and other places around the country who might not otherwise ever have the chance to experience them.