Dialogue with Mr David Rockefeller Jr


While in Hong Kong recently, Asian Cultural Council trustee David Rockefeller Jr., shared his personal thoughts on why the organization matters more now than ever before, what excites him about fellowships within Asia, and how the ACC alumni family makes the program unique.



Q: When did you first become personally involved and how has that evolved over the years?

A: My uncle, John D. Rockefeller III was a wonderful uncle to me, and of course, he was the founder of the Asian Cultural Council in the sixties under another name. And tragically, he died in an automobile accident at the end of the seventies. And I felt so strongly about him as a person and his connections to Asia that I decided to devote some of my life to continuing to fulfill his wishes and his activities. And so for the last, I think 34 years, I have served on the board of ACC, the central office in New York City. And I have enjoyed that very, very much. It has been a very meaningful part of my life to be an ACC trustee.


Q: With the founding of ACC in the sixties, the world was very different. What is your hope, both as somebody who's been on the board for three decades, and as somebody who's thought about this because your family seeded what is now ACC?

A: The world is interesting and complicated, and each country in Asia that has been active as a part of ACC is such a different place, different culture.  One of the wonderful things that has evolved since my uncle's time is the work to move Asian artists within Asia (Triangle Arts).  That's something that's been very effective and very important. What do I hope for the future? Of course, I hope that ACC will become much better known. I hope that our alumni will become more of a cohesive group and more helpful in telling others about ACC. I hope that we will have important instances where ACC artists and ACC (the organization) truly do visibly contribute to peace and harmony and understanding not only between the West and Asia, but amongst the Asian countries themselves. Those are some dreams for us. It would be wonderful if we expanded into more Asian offices as well, but we always have to do that carefully. We don't want to overextend ourselves. We're already active in places where we don't have formal offices; we have had artists from India and Indonesia and Korea where we don't yet have offices.


Q: Yes, to dial back a little, how do we articulate, especially to people who are not part of ACC, the involvement of your family with ACC? How do we describe that?

A: Well, of course, the most important relationship was, John D. Rockefeller 3rd as the founder. But since the founding, his associates like Elizabeth McCormick plus members of the family, especially members of his own family such as Hope Aldrich, Valerie Rockefeller, and Charles Rockefeller, as well as my wife Susan and I and Wendy O'Neill have all been very active.


Q: You've all been very active serving on the board.

A:  Yes, and my cousin Wendy O’Neill was the chair for many, many years. She had lived in Hong Kong for many years. I have also been coming to Asia since 1961 when I visited Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, Manila, and Korea.  So, I early on developed a love for Asia. It was initially through my connection with music. And my wife Susan and I have probably come 20 times to Asia together in the 15 years of our marriage. So, I think there's a very visible connection of our family to Asia and ACC. Your question is how do you take more advantage of it?  And I think it's important that in the publicity that is given about ACC, that the family name is visibly put forth. After all, not all members of my family carry the last name, so sometimes it needs to be clarified, as with Wendy O'Neill, who speaks Chinese, but doesn’t bear the Rockefeller family name.   And the other would be that our family continue to visit Asia, which we gladly do.


Q: And also, you're in Hong Kong partly for the celebration to honor our outgoing chair, Mr. Hans Michael Jebsen, who served for two decades.

A: Well, first of all, as to Hans Michael, I was thrilled to meet him 20 years ago in Denmark, his home country. And we struck up a wonderful friendship almost immediately. I was successful in recruiting him to the board of ACC and to the chairmanship to succeed Kenneth Fung of the ACC Hong Kong office. And he's done a spectacular job as the chair. He was a wonderful choice of course. And the great thing is that he will remain affiliated. He's not giving up his attachment, just his chairmanship. And he in turn through his many significant contacts in the Hong Kong area especially, has been a terrific fundraiser. So, I think the secret is to identifying the right people in each country where ACC is active, who themselves through their own local contacts and relationships can effectively raise money. The philanthropy, US style is a very unique thing. And in other countries of the world, Asia and Europe included philanthropy takes on a very different cast, and you really have to understand how it works in each country.


Q: Yes, indeed. We will also be celebrating our incoming chair for ACC Hong Kong Daphne King-Yao. She started her term this year. I think it's very interesting that you point out that some of the most effective grants recently have been within Asia, so sending Chinese artists, for example, to Southeast Asia to do research. At the moment, there is a curator from China who's doing research in Japan, that sort of thing. How do you see the impact of opportunities like that?

A: Well, I'm not a specialist in this field, but what I do know is that the traditions of art in Asia have both had historical linkages - such as between China, Korea and Japan -and also have had historical separation and very different origins. There's so much to be learned—between shadow puppets on the one hand and Noh theater - and between the different styles of dance and music and instrumentation.  There's just so much to be learned within Asia. It's not like it's one big homogenous culture. And of course, there have been historical tensions between some of the nations in Asia so anything we can do to promote understanding across cultures, I think is very significant.


Q: Really important point. I should also mention that here in Hong Kong, we will be welcoming from early next year, a grantee from ACC Japan who will be in Hong Kong for six months to research martial arts/kung fu. And it should be very interesting to see what comes out of all of that.

A: Exactly.


Q: What about in terms of your own interactions, especially with grantees and the projects that have come out of the Fellowships, what has been the most memorable or kind of meaningful?


A: Cai Guoqiang has spanned many countries in his own life experience between China and Japan and the US. And he has also been one of the most visible artists with his pyrotechnics and the use of explosives and gunpowder in his work. And it's been wonderful with him having a studio in the New York area that my wife Susan and I have been able to visit and to see what his technique is, to learn from him and to have him engaged in some of our fundraising galas. So he’s been a “poster child” grantee, I would say. He continues to produce. He's very well known in the gallery world. He's a public figure really. And he's very generous and also very articulate about the impact of ACC on his own life. We need more Cai Guoqiangs.


Q: Yes. He also has a fellowship in his name.

A: He's become a donor. So, here's a grantee who becomes famous, acknowledges the debt that he owes to ACC and gives back, which is a wonderful, wonderful thing. Not every grantee will be able to afford to do that, I recognize, but some of the successful ones can and have.


Q: In Hong Kong alone, you talk to anybody in any cultural field, in any of the arts, music, dance, theater, criticism, visual arts and you find inevitably somebody whose practice was changed because of ACC grants.

A: Yes.


Q: When you started 30 years ago, serving on the board, did you imagine that this would be the kind of impact that you would have on place like Hong Kong or even China?

A: Well, of course we can always hope, but Hong Kong is already a very big and culturally active city. And then as China opened up, with nearly a billion and a half people, a small organization like ours might be insignificant, but I think it's because of the power of both the directors and the ACC Hong Kong board which has given it this wonderful visibility. And I think we have a lot more to do on the mainland. I've been coming to mainland China since 1983, and look forward to my post-COVID visits there very, very much.


Q: Hong Kong administers the grants for China.

A: Yes.


Q: Are there things you would like to see happen with regards to our engagement with China out of Hong Kong?

A: In the last few years, greater tensions have grown between China and the US. So my principal interest here for many reasons, is that the China-US relationship become more cordial, more understanding and more interactive. I think there's nothing better for international relations than positive contact, which can occur through science and medicine, through business, or through culture.

My family has had a relationship with China that is at least a hundred years old now. Having helped substantially with the building of Xiehe (Beijing Xiehe Hospital), which is the hospital in Beijing that still today is a premier medical institution. We're very proud of that.

And some of our foundations, our philanthropic foundations continue to have China programs. And that's been very, very meaningful to us as a family. And so, my hope is that in all of the art forms, ACC will expand our connection and develop the trust of Chinese authorities, showing that our intentions are positive — which they certainly are — and that our ability to connect artists both within Asia and across the Pacific can be very useful for peace in the world and mutual understanding, especially between the US and China. There were so many more students coming from China to the US and from the US to China a few years ago. And that has really shriveled, and that's not a good thing. We need more Mandarin speakers from the US. We need more Chinese to understand our system and our way of life and that takes direct contact.


Q: And time. Looking at the US and the role ACC has played in cultural diplomacy. When it started in the sixties, ACC was unique. And now I think many artists and cultural figures have so many other avenues of getting this exposure and enacting cultural exchange. How would you, if you were to speak to somebody who was thinking of an ACC grant, what would you say to this person?

A: Well, the first thing I would say is that very few other organizations can claim a 60 year history and 6,000 Fellowship exchanges awarded. So when you become an ACC grantee, you become part of a much broader coterie of artists, some of whom have really blossomed in their careers since the grants they received from ACC. Whereas if you receive a grant from an entity that just started in the last five years, you don't have that history and you don't have that collegial opportunity. And then of course, there's also the experience that ACC has had over this time. The people who have supported it, who have been the professional members of ACC, and the various offices, they have years and years of experience, that is very, very valuable. And I'm glad that [other organizations have emerged] because we at ACC can't do it all, but I think we have a special niche and a history and the Rockefeller connection as well.