On March 2, Asian Cultural Council and Christie’s partnered for a special panel discussion on art, philanthropy, and the importance of cultural exchange. Moderated by Marc Porter, Christie’s Chairman of the Americas, the panel took place at Christie’s New York and featured ACC Board members David and Susan Rockefeller and artist Cai Guo-Qiang (ACC 1995). The conversation was set across the backdrop of Cai’s vibrant, gunpowder drawing Peony and Dahlia No. 2, to be auctioned—alongside works by Liu Wei (ACC 2011) and Zhang Huan—for ACC’s benefit at Christie’s May 31st sale of Contemporary Asian Art in Hong Kong.

Cai Guo-Qiang with his gunpowder drawing Peony and Dahlia No. 2, to be auctioned for ACC’s benefit at Christie’s Hong Kong on May 31

All three panelists spoke from the perspectives of artist, philanthropist, and cultural ambassador. That three individuals could embody these seemingly disparate roles makes a certain sense. Each has the potential to translate current urgencies and needs into creation, connection, understanding, and action across communities and cultures worldwide.

That’s not to say, however, their stories were the same...

“We managed to get three permits, one from the FBI, one from the Department of Energy, and one from the Department of Defense,” Cai remarked with a smile. Arriving in New York in 1995 for his year-long ACC Fellowship, Cai joined PS1’s International Studio Program. There, he was provided access to studio space and group exhibitions, but there was a twist: “Unlike other artists who asked to go to museums in the U.S.,” he said, “I asked to enter the Nevada Nuclear Test Site.” Flanked by an assistant, videographer, and cameraman, armed with gunpowder from dismantled Chinatown firecrackers, Cai made his first work in the U.S., a miniature mushroom cloud that would pave the way for future gunpowder drawings and explosion events.

Cai's first work in the U.S., at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site

This story of transformative cultural exchange occurring early in one’s career was echoed by David Rockefeller, Jr. “I was lucky enough as a college singer to travel to Asia for the first time in 1961, which was—when you think about it—not very long after the end of WWII. I traveled with the Harvard Glee Club to Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, and India. All of the sudden, I was a 19-year-old who’d had his eyes opened—and heart opened as well—and they never closed, frankly.” Fifty years later, David and Susan Rockefeller continue to travel, yet always with a sense of purpose, be it in support of the arts through ACC or ocean conservation with Sailors for the Seas.

“And it’s been an incredible journey,” Susan Rockefeller added, “to learn about the support ACC has allowed for cultural exchange. And given what is happening in our world, we need to build bridges and not silo nor protect in terms of nationalism or xenophobia. ACC is one of the most exemplary organizations that has learned to support [individuals] in a really high touch way. And I say that listening to your story, Cai. The support you received coming here…[mirrors] when we go to China and have had ACC representatives and artists who were grantees take us around…[I] have really deep gratitude for the bridges being built, and we all know they don’t happen overnight, they take time.”

This commitment of time continues to be essential in Rockefeller philanthropy. David Rockefeller, Jr. spoke to his parent’s philanthropic model: engagement, discerning loyalty, and leadership. Lastly, he noted, was the importance of “sharing the fun,” that is, “you need to engage other families and individuals with the skills and capacity” to ensure an organization’s success towards its mission. 

And what of David and Susan Rockefeller’s current stance on philanthropy? Susan explained, “Our mantra is to protect what is precious. And to us, that is family, art, and nature—family as the foundation of values and love, art as the universal language, and nature because if our environment isn’t healthy, then we won’t be healthy.”

An accomplished filmmaker herself, Susan continued, “Art can play a bridge role and inspirational role in elevating consciousness about ideas that are so important right now…people are talking about “artivism,” or artists as activists…They look at science and art, at the zeitgeist of what’s happening, and express it—whether it’s with material innovation like gunpowder or virtual reality or trash from the ocean. There is social commentary that’s coming from artists around the world.”

Among these “artivists” is Cai Guo-Qiang, whose artistic donations and work through the Cai Foundation have benefitted communities in Japan following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, as well as post-earthquake Haiti, China, and Taiwan. In his relationship with ACC, a strong commitment to fostering cross-cultural connections and keen insight into the international arts landscape has accompanied his transition from grant recipient to grantee recommender to philanthropic partner. In 2012, his significant donation of two gunpowder drawings created a multiyear ACC Cai Fellowship Program in support of the next generation of artists and leaders. In continued support of this next generation, ACC has partnered with Christie’s Auction House to feature works by Cai Guo-Qiang, Liu Wei (ACC 2011), and Zhang Huan at the May 31, 2020 Hong Kong Contemporary Art Auction. “This work is the first color gunpowder drawing of mine to be auctioned…I hope that we can achieve a great auction result with proceeds that can benefit more ACC grantees to come.”

(left to right) ACC Chairman Wendy O'Neill, Christie's Chairman of the Americas Marc Porter, ACC board members Susan and David Rockefeller, ACC alumnus Cai Guo-Qiang with interpreter

For inquiries regarding the upcoming auction, please contact Riccardo Salmona at rsalmona@accny.org.