This year’s recipients of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal were executives, investors and philanthropists Clara Wu Tsai and her husband Joe; musician Jon Batiste, and the MAS’ senior counsel Earl D. Weiner.
Gabriel Calatrava, Yeohlee Teng, the CFDA’s CaSandra Diggs, Gary Wassner, James LaForce, Enuma Okoro, Bruce Ratner and NYC x Design’s Elissa Black were among the guests seated in the Weylan’s opulent rotunda in what was once the Williamsburg Savings Bank. Brooklyn trivia and historical facts about local landmarks were shared by a few speakers from the podium. To magnify those points, each table had stenciled skyline displays, which several guests took later as souvenirs.
Wednesday’s event raised nearly $1 million to support the MAS’ efforts to amplify the voices of people in the debates that shape New York’s built environment and to create a more livable city.
Clara Tsai’s many responsibilities include strengthening creativity and equality in the arts through the Tsais’ namesake foundation, as well as furthering economic mobility in Brooklyn through the two-year-old Social Justice Fund. Joe Tsai is cofounder and executive vice chairman of the Alibaba Group and is also chairman of the Barclays Center and owns the Brooklyn Nets with his wife.
Clara Tsai noted how those who weren’t born in Brooklyn but choose to call it home “know that Brooklyn is an identity as much as it is a geographic place. The spirit of this borough is distinct. Although I was born in Kansas to immigrants from Taiwan, this place speaks to me because it’s authentic and real.”
Having fostered creativity, community and connection through her work, Tsai said a true sense of place is essential to all three. “By place, I don’t mean somewhere where you are allowed to be but a place where you feel that you truly belong. My passion is to open up our existing cultural and sporting institutions so that more people feel more welcome. New York can only be the greatest city in the world, if it’s the most open and inclusive. This work starts with our institutions and our buildings and the way that we inhabit them.”
Tsai referenced her work in recent years to make Lincoln Center more inclusive through multicultural programming for music, theater and dance, as well as more affordable pricing to attract younger audiences. While the Barclays Center is home to the New York Nets and the New York Liberty, as well as host to internationally known performers, she said it is also a community center. At the peak of the pandemic, it was a vaccination and testing site and in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, it was a site for protests against social injustices.
“We believe with the right approach we can give the community a safe space to convene, learn and exchange ideas,” Tsai said.
In his intentionally brief remarks, Joe Tsai described Weiner as “a consummate Brooklynite,” recalling how when the two men both worked at Sullivan & Cromwell in the early ’90s, all Weiner would talk about was Brooklyn Heights and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. So much so that Weiner’s name is synonymous with Brooklyn, as far as Tsai is concerned.
After coaxing the crowd to clap their hands and stamp their feet by playing “If You’re Happy and You Know It” on a melodica, Batiste struck a more serious note. “It’s humbling to receive any honor that is not just about the art and the craft, but the translation of love through the art and the craft, and becoming the fabric of the community. To become the fabric of the community, you have to welcome them to become one. That’s a hard thing to do in these times. Love is very hard to believe in in these hard times, but we have to keep believing in it.”
Referring to images that flashed earlier in the program of activists outside the Barclay Center supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, Batiste said they brought to mind the incredible experiences that people had prior to and after the 2020 presidential election. Noting how four years prior to that 40 percent of eligible voters in the U.S. — 100 million people — chose not to vote, Batiste surmised that stemmed from “a sense of apathy, not chiefly distrust or [the notion that] a vote doesn’t matter.”
In recent years, the former bandleader for “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” has taken to the streets to use his music to unite and uplift people. “I thought that presenting the love that comes through our tambourines, dance movements and everything that we present could inspire people and combat apathy. That is the most dangerous thing. I feel it in my soul that the arts, creativity, music and community — all of the fundamentals of human life — are the only answers and have been since the beginning of time,” citing ancient drum circles and Appalachian music as examples.
Twenty years after the New Orleans transplant arrived in New York City as a teenager (and froze at his first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade), the Brooklynite rolled out the welcome mat for collaborations, offering a cultural exchange with students in both cities through his family’s foundation and the MAS.
Having traveled to 40-plus countries — and counting — Batiste said, “Something about [being in] this city and my home in New Orleans, it’s inevitable for me to feel rich. I’m the bridge. There is something beautiful that can come from future generations through this sort of cultural exchange. We’ve seen figures like Louis Armstrong, Wynton Marsalis and all the incredible people that have come back and forth. So I open the door to you. You all know how to get in touch with me.”