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Commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, the Portrait of a Nation Award is a distinguished accolade created by Barton Rubenstein, and is presented biennially at the Gallery's Gala Event to celebrate eminent Americans who have made significant contributions to the nation. Crafted from stainless steel and standing 12 inches high, the sculpture symbolizes recognition of excellence and service to the United States.

How it started

The genesis of this sculpture is deeply intertwined with both the history and the evolving aspirations of the National Portrait Gallery. Initially, NPG Director Kim Sajet proposed that Rubenstein design a large-scale sculpture to be situated at the museum's entrance to honor a notable American woman. This request reflected a conscious shift to diversify the representations within the museum, which was perceived as being overly populated by portraits of historical male figures, predominantly white.

In a moment of inspiration, Rubenstein chose to broaden this concept to honor not just one woman but the collective spirit of the nation’s mothers and grandmothers—those unsung heroes who have played a foundational role in shaping the country’s fabric. Significantly, Rubenstein's own mother, who had been a curator and art historian at the Smithsonian, became the muse for his creation, linking personal history with national homage.

However, as plans evolved, Sajet redirected the project towards a more dynamic engagement with the community through the initiation of the NPG Gala Events. This new vision aimed at fundraising for the Gallery's ongoing and ever-diversifying programs.


Adapting to this change, Rubenstein modified his original concept to produce a smaller, yet equally impactful version of the sculpture, which then became the Portrait of a Nation Award. Every two years, approximately five of these sculptures are crafted by Rubenstein, each serving as a tangible symbol of achievement and recognition, thereby contributing to a richer and more inclusive narrative at the National Portrait Gallery. This award not only celebrates individual achievements but also serves as a testament to the enduring impact of those who have enriched the American story through their contributions.

The next Gala Event will be in November, 2025.

Event Honorees

2022 Event Honorees

Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Clive Davis, Ava Duvernay, José Andrés, Marion Wright Edelman

2019 Event Honorees

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Anna Wintour, Jeffrey P. Bezos, Frances Hamilton Arnold, Indra K. Nooyi, and four members of Earth, Wind, and Fire, Maurice White, Verdine White, Philip Bailey and Ralph Johnson.

2017 Event Honorees

 Spike Lee, Madeleine Albright, Rita Mereno, Bill T Jones, and Dr. David Ho.

2015 Event Honorees

Baseball legend Hank Aaron, Aretha Franklin, architect Maya Lin, Corporal Kyle Carpenter, and fashion designer Carolina Herrara.

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