Honors for Angela

lans Honors for Angela“She never says anything!” Kate Mulleavy said of her sister, Laura, wrapping up her acceptance speech for their shared Bill and Maria Bell Young Artist Award at the National Arts Awards on Monday evening. Kate wore a signature all-black outfit–cardigan, crocheted top, trousers and flats–to receive the award, which was presented by Sonic Youth co-founder Kim Gordon as part of a dinner program given by Americans for the Arts at Cipriani 42nd Street. Ms. Gordon made sure to point out that her lace slip dress was by (who else?) Rodarte, and was given to her by the sisters “from one of their first collections, inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

During cocktail hour, while white-jacketed waiters waltzed past with trays of tuna tartare, beef carpaccio and Harry Cipriani’s famous Bellinis, The Observer managed to snag the more reticent Mulleavy sister for a chat. The Mulleavys, it turns out, are on a bit of a ballet streak: They designed the costumes for One Thing Leads to Another, which premiered last Friday night at the Dutch National Ballet; it was choreographed by the very in-demand Benjamin Millepied, with music by composer-of-the-moment Nico Muhly. The sisters also designed costumes for the upcoming Darren Aronofsky film Black Swan after being personally recommended by its star, Natalie Portman (Mr. Millepied’s girlfriend).

The Mulleavy sisters love the show Murder, She Wrote. It was perhaps an act of fate, then, that its star–stage and screen legend Angela Lansbury–was also due to receive an award on Monday evening. “I think it’s just a coincidence, but let me tell you that it’s been all we’ve been talking about since we found out,” Ms. Mulleavy assured The Observer. She went on to explain that she and Kate had, as children, even gone so far as to write and stage a murder mystery. “We dressed everyone in vintage clothes, and they looked like they were in an Agatha Christie book,” Ms. Mulleavy said.

As for Jessica Fletcher herself, Angela Lansbury–wearing a sumptuous black velvet skirt suit with a ruffled jacket–appeared delighted to be the recipient of the gala’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She’s famous for her range, but one particularly significant performance was her turn as Mrs. Nellie Lovett in Sweeney Todd. “It was really a very definitive role for me, oddly enough,” she said. “Because it incorporated all of the comedy that I’ve always had in my head and in my feet, you know? I’d never had a chance to let it out, but in Sweeney Todd, I really did. I always had to sort of hold myself back and play rather straight roles, but in that, I was able to let it rip. And it turned out to be one of the best things I’d ever done. That is very dear to me,” she concluded, fixing us with her famously bright blue eyes. 

Ms. Lansbury also admitted she’s a big fan of another of the evening’s honorees: Herb Alpert, the eight-time Grammy Award-winning trumpeter, composer and singer. And Ms. Gordon wasn’t the only celebrity presenter: Journalist Bill Moyers, powerhouse theater director Harold Prince and Lincoln Center Festival director Nigel Redden also took the stage to pay tribute to the artists.

All the honorees received a very special award: Jeff Koons, himself a National Arts Awards recipient back in 2006, custom-designed a large, gleaming, golden balloon-rabbit statuette for the event. While waiters brought around lamb and potatoes au gratin, we stole away to pay a visit to Mr. Koons’ table. Noting The Observer‘s 6-inch heels, he politely got up from the table to speak to us.   

Once we could see eye-to-eye, we asked Mr. Koons, in light of the Americans for the Arts commitment to arts education, whether he’d had any particularly influential art teachers. “I had a woman named Mrs. Miller, and Mrs. Miller actually had one hand that was deformed,” Mr. Koons replied. “She really didn’t have a hand; she just had little nubs for fingers, and she was my art teacher, and she helped teach me how to draw and to be able to reproduce images,” he continued fondly.

“In Europe, it’s almost taken for granted, the role that the arts play in everyday life. In the States, if it’s involved with Hollywood, then O.K., maybe it’s culturally relevant. But the Americans for the Arts really do celebrate all the arts, and their cultural relevance in everyday life,” Mr. Koons said. 

And what about that rabbit? “It’s an optimistic image–it’s one that also is kind of a symbol of fertility,” Mr. Koons said of his design for the award. “And there’s something that’s almost like a sun goddess about it, also. But it’s just a joyous image.”