The Vilcek Foundation Newsletter
The Vilcek Foundation Newsletter
Peter Breiner to Perform Tango Music at the Vilcek Foundation's Cultural Space on June 4th and 5th, 2009
I write to you this spring from Atlanta, where the Vilcek Foundation has been a proud participant at the Council on Foundations annual conference, joining the world's philanthropic leaders to exchange ideas and form new alliances. My staff and I were deeply involved in conversations about our programs, which gave us an expanded outlook about the importance and uniqueness of our mission. We also heard firsthand from Melody Barnes, Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, who described the President's plans for our sector.
As a very young foundation, we are excited by the opportunity to form new partnerships with the White House and with other organizations that have long-standing and respected commitments to social innovation and entrepreneurship. We came away impressed by the innovative strategies foundations are adopting to do more with less in these harrowing economic times. And, as always, we enjoyed reconnecting with fellow philanthropists and making new acquaintances in the fields of science, arts, and immigration.
In our own backyard, we recently celebrated our annual awards gala, and it's the top story in this issue of our newsletter. But it's far from the only story. Even as we settled in last year at our new home on East 73rd Street we have continued to be on the move, advancing our mission to bring greater public awareness to the contributions of immigrants to our country.
One testament to how we met that challenge in the past months was front and center on the night of April 2, in the ballroom of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. At our awards dinner this year, in addition to the Vilcek Prizes, we also presented for the first time the Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise, to younger, midcareer immigrants, one each in biomedical sciences and the arts (this year, filmmaking). Sharing the spotlight with Vilcek Prize recipients Huda Zoghbi and Mike Nichols were Howard Chang and Ham Tran, our inaugural Creative Promise winners. I hope you were there, but if you were unable to attend, you can read about the event in this issue⎯and learn much more about these four success stories on our website.
We also have been making excellent use of the wonderful and flexible space designed for special events at our headquarters. From March 18 through May 15, we presented "Mephistophelean," an exhibition of the sculpture of a remarkable artist, Ryo Toyanaga. And in June, we will be hosting a performance of an amazingly versatile musician, Peter Breiner. More about both those artists and events also in this issue.
Looking forward to next year, we have chosen the 2010 arts category for the Vilcek Prizes and Creative Promise Prizes⎯the culinary arts. In keeping with that theme, our profile this issue is on Cristeda Comerford, the Executive Chef at the White House. Demonstrating that fine cuisine crosses all political boundaries, Philippines-born Ms. Comerford was chosen to serve both the Bush administration and, now, President Obama and his family.
I personally have been on the move, as well, traveling more than ever on behalf of the Foundation. What I've been learning about the issue of immigration in this country is both inspiring and distressing. This complex issue is not⎯nor has it ever been⎯an easy one to understand; and the problems arising from so much misunderstanding are not easy to solve. Yet even as I recognize the difficulties, in my role as Executive Director of the Vilcek Foundation, I feel privileged to be able to focus on the accomplishments of the foreign born after they arrive on these shores, to witness how they triumph over language and cultural differences, make new lives for themselves and for their children, and serve their adopted country in countless ways.
The stories we present in this newsletter are emblematic of just a few of those ways. I hope you enjoy them.
Photos © Northlight Photography
Over two hundred guests were on hand on April 2 to congratulate Huda Zoghbi and Mike Nichols, the winners of this year's Vilcek Prizes, and Howard Chang and Ham Tran, the first-ever recipients of the Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise. Jan and Marica Vilcek once again welcomed their guests to the elegant Mandarin Oriental Hotel, high over Columbus Circle and Central Park, where the lights of New York City provided the perfect backdrop to this singular event, which celebrates the exceptional achievements made by immigrants to the American arts and sciences.
No one in attendance came away unmoved by the stirring remarks made by the award winners - and by Nicholas Wade, who introduced the science recipients, and Richard Schickel, who presented the arts prize winners. Sitting "ringside" were such leaders from the scientific and artistic communities as Harold Varmus, President of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; Emily Rafferty, President of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Ellis Rubinstein, CEO and President of the New York Academy of the Sciences; Rajendra Roy, the Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of the Department of Film at the Museum of Modern Art, and his sister, fashion designer Rachel Roy. A very familiar face among the crowd was television journalist Diane Sawyer, accompanying her husband Mike Nichols. Also in the audience, and well known now to Vilcek Foundation supporters, were previous Vilcek Prize winners Christo and Jeanne Claude, Osvaldo Golijov, Joan Massagué, Denise Scott Brown, and Inder Verma.
The International Profile of American Science
In presenting the Vilcek Prizes in biomedical research - traditionally announced first at the annual gala - New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade spoke about the profound impact foreign-born scientists and researchers have on all our lives. "American immigrants," he said, "keep us at the top of science. When we look at the past Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, we are reminded of what immigrants have done in the field; and when we look to the Vilcek Prize winners we are reminded of what we may achieve in the future."
Huda Zoghbi, a pioneer in the study of Rett Syndrome and related autism spectrum disorders, became the fourth recipient of the Vilcek Prize in biomedical research. Dr. Zoghbi completed her medical studies in the United States when escalating war made it too dangerous for her to return to her native Lebanon. Her experiences here, as a student, clinical practitioner, and researcher, underscored for her the importance of granting immigrant scientists visas to study and work in the United States. Success, she believes, cannot be determined alone by the large number of immigrant scientists who have triumphed here. Rather, Dr. Zoghbi said, "The true formula for success involves not just those who come to this country and do the work, but also those who accept them, make them feel welcome here." Throughout her career, she said, she has been encouraged and supported by others in positions to advance her career. Today, as professor of Pediatrics, Neurology, Neuroscience, and Molecular and Human Genetics at Baylor College of Medicine and an Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Dr. Zoghbi carries on that tradition, making mentoring as much a part of her life work as the research she conducts.
Mr. Wade also introduced Howard Chang, the first person to accept a Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in biomedical research. This award category was initiated last year by the Vilceks to expand recognition of midcareer immigrants in biomedical research and the arts. Dr. Chang is a practicing dermatologist and Associate Professor of Dermatology and principal investigator in the Program in Epithelial Biology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. He was recently appointed to the inaugural class of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientists.
Born in Taiwan, Dr. Chang graduated from the Harvard - MIT MD - PhD program before going to Stanford, where he launched a new research program to unravel the mystery of site-specific differences in human skin, with the potential to develop novel modes of gene control with the potential to have wide-ranging application, from cancer treatment to aging.
Upon accepting, Dr. Chang said, simply, "I am humbled to be part of such a prestigious group of scientists - the other Vilcek Prize winners."
The Immigrant Influence on Film
The 2009 Vilcek Prizes in the arts were dedicated to the craft of the filmmaker. Who better to present these awards than Richard Schickel, longtime film critic at TIME magazine, documentary filmmaker, and film historian. As such, he knows better than most the powerful influence of immigrants on the movie industry in this country, from its earliest days to the present.
"To a degree, he said, "everybody who comes into the arts is an immigrant. No one is born into it. We come to it with a yearning to create." As to why so many actual immigrants have been drawn to the film industry, Mr. Schickel points out that foreigners often turn to film to help then acclimate to their new culture - to learn the language, how to dress, and how to behave. In this way, Mr. Schickel says, they develop what he calls an "immigrant ear" - a talent for listening. So adept do they become at this skill that they develop a creative insight that leads them to shape memorable stories and characters and, in so doing, shape American culture.
Perhaps no other contemporary filmmaker has so been instrumental in influencing American culture through film than this year's Vilcek Prize winner in the arts, Mike Nichols. Many are surprised to learn he was born in Germany, so closely linked is he with now-iconic American characters and themes, from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf to The Graduate to Working Girl and many others.
No stranger to awards (he's got them all - the Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, and Tony), Mr. Nichols was humble in accepting the Vilcek Prize, focusing not on his own achievements but on the "generosity of spirit" exhibited by Dr. Jan Vilcek and the Vilcek Foundation: "[Jan] transitioned the rewards of his talent and luck into something for others."
Unlike Mike Nichols, Creative Prize winner Ham Tran is not widely known to moviegoers - yet. But, he said, receiving the award in the company of the filmmaking legend made him feel as if he had achieved success as an artist. The Vietnam native was also particularly glad to have his mother in the audience to enjoy the moment because, as he explained, "When I was young, I told my mom I wanted to be an artist. In response, she said nervously, 'You mean an architect: You can draw and make money.'" Now, he hopes, she will stop worrying. Mr. Tram's film, The Anniversary, qualified for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short and has won more than 30 international film festival awards.
Mr. Nichols and Dr. Zoghbi each received a $50,000 cash award and a commemorative trophy created by designer Stefan Sagmeister. Creative Promise Prize winners Mr. Tran and Dr. Chang each received a $25,000 cash award and a plaque, also designed by Mr. Sagmeister.
Photos © Liz Ligon Photography
Not so very long ago, the average American food shopper could not have found - nor probably would have been looking for - such items as mesclun salad mix, extra-virgin olive oils in various configurations; cheeses from all over the world; pastas of all shapes, sizes, and colors; untold types of vinegars and mustards; and fresh herbs and produce from all over the world. Today, we expect to find all these things and more, readily available, and not just at specialty gourmet shops but at our humble, local grocery stores, as well. Then we go home to watch the Food Channel and celebrity chefs of all stripes to learn how to prepare these once-exotic but now-familiar food items.
What brought about this dramatic change in our food culture, and when? According to sociologist Harvey Levenstein, it was travel, beginning in the sixties. The number of Americans vacationing abroad tripled in that decade. In his book Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in America (Oxford University Press, 1993), travel "stimulate[ed] a growing cosmopolitanism, which made people receptive to foreign foods in general."
Levenstein was an early pioneer in the study of food history, tracing America's food ideas and practices and linking them to other social trends and issues. One of those trends is the large number of immigrants who have made and continue to make their way to this country, bringing with them their native cuisines and, more importantly, the talent necessary to introduce those cuisines to the American public. In recognition of this vital part of our culture, the Vilcek Foundation has chosen the culinary arts as the 2010 category for its Vilcek Prize and its Creative Promise Prize in the arts.
"In the culinary arts arena the talents of immigrants shine brightly. This art form flourishes in large part because of the diverse influences and skills brought to it by immigrant practitioners," said Rick Kinsel, Executive Director of the Foundation. "At the same time, their contributions to the field are not always recognized as widely as they should be."
Mr. Kinsel is also quick to draw a broader picture: "Important conversations are taking place today in this country not only about food preparation and appreciation, but also about the ethics and politics of food sources and procurement. Thus, it is the perfect space to illuminate the cultural contributions of foreign-born people."
American cuisine today can only be described as a tasteful mélange of the flavors of the world, and owes its great diversity to the immigrants who have come here from all over the globe. It is also a dynamic cuisine, ever changing, along with the makeup of the immigrant population.
Appropriately, it was an immigrant to this country who summed up succinctly, if a bit tongue-in-cheek, the importance of food to history and cultural identity. In his book The Art of Living(1937), peripatetic philosopher Lin Yutang wrote, "Our lives are not in the lap of the gods, but in the lap of our cooks."
Vilcek Prize Program
The Vilcek Foundation awards the Vilcek Prize annually in two categories - biomedical research and the arts and humanities - to foreign-born individuals who, since coming to this country, have made lasting and exemplary contributions in their fields. Independent committees composed of leading experts in their respective fields are charged with selecting the award recipients.
The original Vilcek Prize program was expanded in 2008 to include the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise, with the purpose of drawing attention to the role younger, midcareer immigrants play in sustaining the excellence and vibrancy of the biomedical sciences and the arts in the United States. To be eligible for the 2010 Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise applicants must have been born outside the United States and be 38 years old or younger as of January 1, 2010. The application deadline is July 31, 2009. For more information, visit www.vilcek.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Vilcek Prize winners are awarded $50,000 in cash along with a commemorative trophy designed by Stefan Sagmeister. Creative Promise recipients receive a $25,000 cash award and a plaque, also designed by Stefan Sagmeister. All prizes are presented at the Foundation's annual awards ceremony and dinner held in New York City each spring.
At the preview of "Mephistophelean," an exhibit of the works by the Japanese-born sculptor Ryo Toyonaga, it became apparent that no two people were affected in the same way by any one of the extraordinary pieces on display. As guests weaved around and between the 18 pieces, situated expressly so they could be seen from all sides, they could be heard muttering to themselves and describing to their friends how they interpreted the one-of-a-kind shapes and images that emerged from the fertile imagination of this innovative artist.
Curator Midori Yamamura explained her approach to the exhibition, which lent a distinct insight. In selecting the works for the exhibit, from a body of some 300, Ms. Yamamura, a lecturer at the Museum of Modern Art and an art history PhD candidate, explained, "Initially, I was interested in the most nightmarish sculptures that [Mr. Toyonaga] created in his downtown Manhattan studio after 9/11. I then decided to shape the show by focusing on the works predicated on fear, anxiety, and loneliness - emotion and states of mind corresponding with the current tumult in society."
Another viewpoint was offered by James Roe, who attended the opening reception on March 12, 2009, and later described Mr. Toyonaga's work on his blog: "To contemplate these objects pulls the mind through the paradoxes of appearance and reality ... As either fossils from the future or distant past, the question is unavoidable: How did these things come to be? And the corollary question, Why can't I take my eyes off of them? We all have thoughts, fantasies, obsessions, whose force on our lives is as powerful as any physical object .... Toyonaga has given form, shape, and physical presence to the actors of our unconscious theater, and offers the chance to confront them face to face."
The artist himself explains his creations this way: "I hope to express the timeless connection and friction between man and nature. It is a consequence of this approach that the images I perceive and interpret in my art are often of the monsters that inevitably feed on this conflict." Growing up during the seventies economic boom in Japan, Mr. Toyonaga struggled to find his way to personal fulfillment. It began to take shape through clay, the first medium he worked with. Later, he worked in bronze and aluminum casting and papier-mâché. Always what emerged, no matter the medium, were provocative sculptures⎯and some of the most thought-provoking are on view at the Vilcek Foundation.
The freedom to move among these fascinating pieces, and interpret them at will, was enabled by Peter Tow, AIA, principal and founder of Manhattan-based Tow Studios, who designed the exhibit space. Of Mr. Toyonaga's sculptures, Mr. Tow said, "Most of Ryo's pieces have a definite front and a definite back. With that in mind I felt it was important that viewers be encouraged to walk around the sculptures. The arc-shaped arrangement - not unlike the organic forms of the sculptures - encourages people to walk from taller to smaller pieces, and gaps in the arrangement make it possible to move behind the sculptures as well. While the podiums are spaced far enough apart to enjoy the individual pieces, the arrangement also brings the ensemble together in a coherent whole."
Lecture Series Extends Focus on Contemporary Japanese Art
In conjunction with "Mephistophelean," the Vilcek Foundation, with the support of the Japan Foundation NY, hosted a lecture series titled "Contemporary Japanese Art in a Global Context." The series featured scholars of post-World War II Japanese art, including Alexandra Munroe, Senior Curator of Asian Art the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; scholar and curator Reiko Tomii; and cultural critic and author Eleanor Heartney. The discussions focused on topics such as "Asian American Artists and the Transmission of the East to the American Avant-Garde"; "1960s Japanese Art"; and "Japanese Art Today: Takashi Murakami and Superflat in Context."
Photos © Liz Ligon Photography
He is one of the world's most recorded musicians, with more than 150 CDs to his credit and more than 1.5 million sold. His recitals are unique, ranging from Mozart and Bach one evening to jazz the next and a night of tangos the night after that. He is Peter Breiner, celebrated Slovak composer, conductor, pianist, and arranger, and on June 4th and 5th, 2009, he will perform tango music at the Vilcek Foundation. He will be accompanied by two musicians from Slovakia.
"Few in the world can, with the same ease, conduct a symphonic orchestra in Barber's Symphony, lead a big band at a swing concert, or direct a chamber orchestra performing a baroque program - while playing harpsichord - or take charge of a group of almost 200 musicians recording a score for a movie," said Marica Vilcek, Cofounder of the Vilcek Foundation. Yet in describing himself, Mr. Breiner says, simply, "I am a musician." Clearly, one of unparalleled scope.
Consider that Mr. Breiner has conducted, often while doubling as a pianist, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Mozart Orchestra, the Hungarian State Radio Orchestra, the Nicolaus Esterhazy Orchestra Budapest, the Polish Radio and TV Symphony Orchestra, the Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra, the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Capella Istropolitana, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra National de Lille, France, and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. And that's just the short list.
Like his performance repertoire, Mr. Breiner's own compositions also are multidimensional. As a student, he says, he felt compelled always to cross over into different musical worlds. Later, he preferred a synthesis of musical types, which brought his music closer to that of Leonard Bernstein. His ability to synthesize was never more apparent than at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, where his arrangements of the national anthems of all participating countries were heard by billions around the world.
Mr. Breiner has another audience of listeners, although television and movie viewers may not be aware that the scores they are hearing are his. He has composed the music for the Canadian film classic Anne of Green Gables, the CBC television show Wind at My Back, and Timothy Findley's Piano Man's Daughter, produced by Whoopi Goldberg.
Mr. Breiner's recital at the Vilcek Foundation marks the first musical event held at the landmark headquarters building since it opened last year.
In this day and age of celebrity chefs, Cristeta Comerford may not be a household name across America, but she is well known at the most important household in the land: the White House. Where partisan politics are often the order of the day in the nation's capital, in the kitchen at the home of the president and his family, no party lines are drawn. Thus, when it came time for President-elect Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, to name their executive chef, they chose to retain Ms. Comerford, who had served the previous administration.
Ms. Comerford is both the first woman and first Filipino American to hold this important position, but these are secondary ingredients on a long list of impressive credentials. A native of Manila, she earned her degree in food technology from the University of the Philippines before moving with her family to the United States, at age 23. She spent her salad days as a prep cook at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Chicago, where she rose steadily through the ranks. From there, she moved on to Vienna, Austria, for international training. Upon her return stateside, she settled in Washington, DC, where she was recruited by Walter Scheib, President Bill Clinton's executive chef.
When Mr. Scheib resigned from the position in 2005, he passed his toque blanche to the ambitious Comerford, whom he calls the "best assistant chef I had in 35 years in the business," adding, "Cris's skills transcend gender and background."
During an interview with Andrew Nodell from the Vilcek Foundation, Mr. Scheib pointed out that it is, in fact, the First Lady, not the president, who by tradition is responsible for hiring the executive chef - she is the chief of domestic affairs at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Michelle Obama has been reported as saying said that her decision to keep Comerford on staff was in large part based on their mutual agreement about the importance of health-conscious cooking. It didn't hurt that Ms. Comerford, like Mrs. Obama, is the mother of a young daughter.
Ms. Comerford's expansive culinary skills will be put to good use by the Obamas, known to have sophisticated and diverse palates. While her base is Asian, explains Mr. Scheib, "she is an assimilated American," capable of effectively melding many cultural influences -including her native Filipino - into her culinary creations, all the while catering her menus to the President and the First Family's taste. Thus, whereas George and Laura Bush often requested Tex-Mex cuisine, reportedly, President Obama's favorite foods range from chapatti, an African flatbread, to Chicago-style deep-dish pizza.
Whatever the menu and whatever the event - whether for a state dinner or a small family gathering in the First Family's private quarters - Ms. Comerford will be overseeing them all. She is responsible for every detail of food service at the White House. As such, the decisions she makes will undoubtedly come under intense scrutiny from food critics around the world - perhaps more so than of any previous White House chef, due to the growing interest nationwide in healthy living and all things food related.
Chances are, however, the only critics Ms. Comerford will worry about pleasing are the Obamas - in particular, Mrs. Obama. The First Lady is known to care deeply about good nutrition and sustainable food sources. This is already evident in the changes she has made to the household garden. Formerly a collection of rooftop pots, the White House garden now boasts its own ground-level "real estate" planned for year-round seasonal crops. From this "modern-day Victory garden" fresh produce will be harvested for the family's private meals.
Next year, Cristeta Comerford will celebrate a half-decade as executive chef. No doubt, she will be too busy dazzling world leaders and VIPs with her culinary prowess to mark the anniversary.