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Review: Smithsonian Associates in Collaboration with the Creativity Foundation presents the 15th Annual Benjamin Franklin Creativity Laureate Prize to Tim Robbins

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I wasn’t sure what to expect from this event, but it was unlike any Smithsonian Associates’ event I’ve ever attended. It involved a laugh exercise, talks about prison reform through art, and how art saved Tim Robbins’ life.

The Benjamin Franklin Creativity Laureate Prize is based on Franklin’s ideals, “I wish to be useful even after my death, if possible, in forming and advancing other young men who may be serviceable to their country.” The Benjamin Franklin Junto created the Prize to honor the world’s most extraordinarily creative thinkers and innovators. Past honorees include Meryl Streep (2008), Ted Turner (2008), Yo-Yo Ma (2002) and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (2005).

Tim Robbins. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Associates.

So why did they choose Robbins? Well after the evening was over, it was clearly evident they choose the right honoree. Robbins is more than just an Oscar winning actor, he is passionate about the arts and how they can save communities and transform the world. The evening was informative, hilarious, thought provoking and engaging. They do a great job structuring the evening and at only slight over an hour it encompasses a perfect amount of time. I highly recommend attending any Smithsonian Associates’ events. If you’re bored living in DC, you’re doing something wrong!

Robbins came out looking sharp in a gray suit smiling at the packed auditorium. Frederica R. Adelman, the Director of the Smithsonian Associates introduced the program. Laurie Kahn, Benjamin Franklin Junto chair, shared her remarks about why Robbins was chosen for the award. Robbins answered questions thoughtfully with a great sense of humor, storytelling and passion. He kept it apolitical except for his plea for protecting the arts.

This event covered an in-depth amount of information. They shared about Robbins’ history art immersion. He bathed in art all of his life as his parents were both musicians, he was read to as a child and they didn’t have TV until the Moon landing. His dad was in the band The Highwaymen. Robbins grew up in NYC in the middle of Greenwich Village, the culture capital of NYC. Robbins called his family dinner table discussions, “a cauldron of creativity.” His girlfriend’s brother was into theater, which got Robbins into theater and kept him engaged in school, helped him avoid bullies and changed his life. His family encouraged singing stating, “The only bad singers are the ones not singing.” Robbins naturally to this day encourages everyone to sing. I’ll guess I’ll start again!

Robbins’ shared how he created the LA theatre company The Actors’ Gang because of art cuts, which also participates in another Robbins’ initiative Prison Project. He believes the poor education system, war on drugs and lack of arts programs directly correlates to a surging prison population. He calls prison a “crime school” where people go to learn to be criminal. His goal is to get art into schools and prisons to lower the prison population. Art takes the place of aggression. So far he has successfully launched his arts program in several prisons and schools and has had astonishing results with lowered aggression and less recidivism. One of the things he requires is that the art classes be integrated. The art taps into 4 emotions: happiness, sadness, anger and fear. He shared how emotions can change on a dime, but usually only anger is at the prisons to prevent being attacked. At the end of the classes he does a laughing exercise. Lo and behold, Robbins had the whole Smithsonian Associates’ audience stand up and do it with him. We laughed for 45 seconds straight!!

Robbins shared wisdom he received from several mentors including director Robert Altman who directed him in “The Player.” He got his big break because he had already formed The Actor’s Gang. Altman was a collaborative director and never acted like he knew it all, “He made everyone creative.” He told Robbins, “Nothing worse than talking to a dumb actor,” which to Robbins meant to be educated about the world. Altman was loyal to people, for example, even though he was offered additional financing to have an actor replace Robbins, he refused.

Robbins took some questions from the audience at the end. He revealed he won’t ever run for office, but will be a thorn in the side of those who do. He is writing a memoir. He also took some pictures with fans after the event (including me!).

This was an incredible and inspiring night. It shared how one person can make a difference and why Art in society plays a vital role in a happy and functioning society. The Smithsonian Associates’ put together a great event as usual!

Smithsonian Associates in Collaboration with the Creativity Foundation presents the 15th Annual Benjamin Franklin Creativity Laureate Prize to Tim Robbins was a one-time lecture on April 7, 2017, at S. Dillon Ripley Center – 1100 Jefferson Dr SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 633-3030, or purchase them online.

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