Asian Cultural Council: How Wendy O'Neill Is Continuing The Rockefeller Legacy
The philanthropic reputation of the Rockerfeller family stands as strong now as it did a century ago. Throughout John D Rockefeller Sr’s life, the oil tycoon donated some US$540 million to modern medicine, including funding the Peking Union Medical College in Beijing, which opened in 1917.
But lesser known is the family’s contribution to Asian art and culture, channelled through the Asian Cultural Council founded by John D Rockefeller III in 1963 and chaired today by his great-granddaughter Wendy O’Neill.
“More investment in the arts, that’s what the world needs,” says Wendy, who in 2009 became a trustee of the council, which helps support talented individuals pursuing a career in the visual and performing arts by offering cultural exchanges in the US or Asia.
As it celebrates its 55th anniversary this year, the council operates chapters in Hong Kong, New York, Manila, Tokyo and Taipei, and has bestowed 6,000 grants in 20 different artistic disciplines across 26 countries.
Continuing a legacy
Wendy’s background prepared her well to continue her great-grandfather’s legacy in Asia.
She grew up witnessing her parents’ involvement in philanthropy from a young age—they formed a community foundation in her US hometown and would have meetings at the house—before going on to Harvard and Radcliffe College, where her studies focused on East Asia, and to receive an MA in history (with a specialty in Chinese history) from the University of California, Los Angeles.
Philanthropy “was just always around me,” says Wendy. In 2001, by then living in Hong Kong with her husband and children, Wendy joined the charitable donations committee of the American Women’s Association of Hong Kong and was chairman for three years.
“It made my experience here in Hong Kong more rewarding,” she says. “There are a lot of really inspirational people in Hong Kong who have devoted their time to good causes.” In 2005, she joined the board of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and went on to become a trustee at the China Medical Board and the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors—all now in addition to her current position as chairman of the Asian Cultural Council.
More investment in the arts, that’s what the world needs
“Arts infrastructure isn’t always considered to be very exciting but it’s so important to the community,” says Wendy, who recognises the positive ripple effect that artists have on their hometowns and countries.
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The first Hong Kong recipient of a council grant was self-taught artist Hon Chi-fun, who was a postman drawing landscapes in his spare time before being discovered by the council in 1968 and sent to study at the Pratt Graphics Centre in New York. Now 95, he’s been an abstract artist ever since.
Other Hongkongers have included curator and educator Oscar Ho, who has gone on to train arts administrators across China, and Claire Hsu, founder of the Asia Art Archive. All have been pioneers in their fields, says Wendy. The council is currently looking at the arts administration requirements for the West Kowloon Cultural District, recognising the importance of “investing in people and not just buildings.”
The grants are “about more than just writing a cheque,” says the council’s executive director, Miho Walsh. “We meet with grantees very frequently, we give them guidance, we make introductions, we place them in internships or residencies. We are constantly looking to amplify the effect of that grant, trying to leverage our network to help our grantees achieve what they want to and more.”
It’s this global network, formed through a mutual passion for the arts, that Wendy and the Asian Cultural Council hope will help break down boundaries and build a sense of trust within and between communities. Inspired by the multicultural relationships formed by the Rockefeller dynasty, Wendy believes that “trust is the fabric of society.”
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