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Inside the Gala Where Usher Was In a Bidding War Over a Photo

For a moment, the annual Gordon Parks Foundation gala felt like a church service.

The celestial voices of a choir echoed throughout, resonating from the marble floor to the vaulted ceiling of Cipriani on 42nd Street. They sang and stomped powerfully while patrons took their seats.

The service had begun.

The night included a reverent performance from Patti Smith, an auction that felt a little like tithing and something of a sermon from the artist Carrie Mae Weems celebrating the artist Mickalene Thomas — who was also in the crowd. It was capped off with a call to action from Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of the slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

Every year, the Gordon Parks Foundation, named for Gordon Parks, the famed photographer, director and musician, honors a community of artists and athletes at a gala to raise funds for fellowships and scholarships. Those who admire Mr. Parks, who died in 2006, get together to eat, dance, push one another forward in their activism and worship expression that spurs social change.

This year’s honorees, who were celebrated for their work in their respective fields, included Ms. Thomas; Ms. Evers-Williams; Alicia Keys and her husband, Swizz Beatz, whose name is Kasseem Dean; and Colin Kaepernick, the former N.F.L. quarterback turned activist. Richard Roundtree, who played the main character in Mr. Parks’s 1971 film “Shaft” and died in October, received a posthumous award.

The gala, now in its 14th year, also held an auction of photographs by Mr. Parks, which raised about $640,000.

A single photo from 1956 of a Black family at an ice cream stand set off a gritty bidding war between Usher, the R&B singer, and Gail Yabuki, the director of the Yabuki Family Foundation, who won with a bid of $200,000.

“I have a competitive nature, so it’s hard for me to stop,” Ms. Yabuki said. “I was just going to keep going.”

The fund-raiser raised about $2.3 million, but the event, much like a church service, was not all about money or how much the foundation collected to keep itself running.

Peter W. Kunhardt Jr., the executive director of the foundation, said one of its goals is to make sure Mr. Parks’s legacy “is cemented in time.”

“There’s young artists today who weren’t alive when Gordon Parks was alive that are now understanding the breadth and depth of his career,” he said.

An admiration of Mr. Parks’s influence was passed down to Chelsea Clinton, who said she appreciates his photography.

“I grew up knowing Gordon Parks, his work, through my parents,” Ms. Clinton said, speaking to reporters on a red carpet. “Now, I am the proud owner of a few Gordon Parks photographs.”

A few recognizable faces slid into the event a bit late.

Spike Lee took his seat between Mr. Kaepernick and Usher about 30 minutes after the program had started. “I’m filming my fifth movie with Denzel Washington,” said Mr. Lee, who was wearing a vest and track pants. “That’s why I’m not dressed up.”

Clive Davis, the record industry mogul, who was wearing a lime green tie, skipped the red carpet altogether. “I so admire the history, the background — it is all very unique, very special and moving,” Mr. Davis said of the event, which he has attended many times.

Gayle King, the broadcast journalist, began the award portion of the evening by introducing Ms. Evers-Williams, 91. She did not attend the event in person, but appeared via recorded video. Her otherworldly voice, rich with wisdom, boomed through the speakers.

“This award is a testament to the progress we have made and a reminder of the work that still lies ahead,” she said from her home in Mississippi, where she was sitting in front of a painting of her husband.

Ms. Smith, who said she was moved to tears at a recent exhibit of Mr. Parks’s work, took the stage with her longtime bandmate Tony Shanahan. Her white hair and shirt shone under the lights, giving her an angelic aura. She performed her song “Peaceable Kingdom.”

Honoring activism was a big part of the night, but underscoring that message was a conversation about how to protect the legacies of people like Mr. Parks, who dedicate their lives to bringing about change.

Wearing a pinstripe Dolce & Gabbana suit, Mr. Dean, who along with Ms. Keys has one of the largest privately owned collections of work by Mr. Parks, said collecting the photographer’s pieces was central to preserving his legacy.

“Instead of telling people what they’re not, we wanted to inspire them to be,” Mr. Dean said.

After the honors had been handed out, photos had been taken, tears had been shed and Mr. Lee had delivered a couple of somber anecdotes about his beloved New York Knicks, who had just been defeated in the playoffs, the congregation began to lose steam.

Usher left the building and D.J. D-Nice, a born-again celebrity, played the R&B gospels: Stevie Wonder and Frankie Beverly.

It was time for fellowship or an Uber ride home.

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