The Vilcek Foundation Newsletter
The Vilcek Foundation Newsletter
The Vilcek Foundation Celebrates LOST
Dr. Alexander Varshavsky and Chef José Andrés, winners of the 2010 Vilcek Prizes in Biomedical Science and the Culinary Arts, pose with their trophies.
Dr. Harmit Singh Malik (right), winner of the Creative Promise Prize in the Biomedical Sciences, accepts his plaque from Jan and Marica Vilcek.
Executive Director Rick Kinsel, with Editor-in-Chief of Food and Wine magazine Dana Cowin, and Varin Keokitvon, winner of the Creative Promise Prize in the Culinary Arts
As the debate over immigration heats up in this country to the boiling point since April, when Governor Jan Brewer signed that controversial immigration bill in Arizona we feel more deeply our commitment to spread the word about the contributions, large and small, of the foreign-born to this country. Fortunately, there is no shortage of gifted and interesting men and women we can spotlight. In fact, we have the opposite problem: how to choose from among so many.
We think about this every year as we go through the process of selecting our Vilcek Prize and Creative Promise Prize winners. Jan Vilcek mentioned it at our awards gala on April 3, while introducing the finalists the difficulty of selecting only four. Still, we believe that in celebrating the stellar achievements of a few we are also honoring the contributions of the many. I hope that you were able to be with us this year as we added the names of our 2010 winners to our growing roster of prize recipients (it was our fifth anniversary): Alexander Varshavsky and José Andrés, Vilcek Prize winners in Biomedical Science and Culinary Arts, respectively; and Harmit Malik and Varin Keokitvon, recipients of the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science and Culinary Arts, respectively. More than just their professional mien, the dynamic personalities and strong characters of these four men speak volumes about the vital influence immigrants have on our culture and society.
You will read about two more strong characters in this issue of the newsletter, one of whom we're especially proud our own president, Dr. Jan Vilcek. On March 20, he returned to his former homeland to accept the Goodwill Ambassador Award, a distinction of honor and appreciation from the people of the Slovak Republic. This, after having been considered a traitor for leaving his country illegally so many years ago. We also want to introduce you to a kindred spirit, Fuad El-Hibri, who started his own organization, the El-Hibri Charitable Foundation, with the primary mission of promoting world peace through education. Mr. El-Hibri turned toward philanthropy after achieving enormous success in the biopharmaceutical industry.
Our profile this issue is on Dr. Sunae Park Evans, Senior Costume Conservator at the National Museum of American History, in Washington, DC. Few people can say they are so closely in touch with history than Dr. Park Evans, for what is more personal than the clothes we wear? Passing through her hands every day, for care and conservation, is the apparel of our nation's historical figures, past and present. Most recently, as you'll read here, she took custody of First Lady Michelle Obama's inaugural gown.
This spring has been a particularly busy one for us at the Vilcek Foundation. We hardly had time to catch our breaths after the gala before we were hard at work on preparations for our upcoming exhibition: "The Vilcek Foundation Celebrates LOST: A Showcase of the International Artists and Filmmakers of ABC's Hit Show," which came about altogether serendipitously, as a result of a conversation I had with the series' executive co-producer Jean Higgins, at last year's Hawaii International Film Festival. We're expecting a record turnout for this show LOST fans are legion. It opens May 20, and we hope to see you among the crowd.
And, as always, I look forward to hearing from you.
Writer Melinda Hsu Taylor draws on her experience as a first-generation Chinese American for the show’s themes of isolation.
Zack Grobler, a South African-born production designer, literally draws sets for the show based on his travels
If the subway broke down during your morning commute, who might you be stuck with? In the city of New York, home to over 8 million people speaking an estimated 176 different languages, it could be anyone.
It's an intriguing question to consider as the Vilcek Foundation prepares to bring its next exhibition, based on the internationally acclaimed television series LOST, to the island of Manhattan. Filmed in Hawaii, the show is premised on the crash of fictional Oceanic Flight 815, from Sydney to Los Angeles, onto a tropical island that harbors many secrets. In the wake of the crash, the globally diverse passengers must negotiate an understanding – albeit one that is often shifting and uneasy – amongst themselves if they are to survive.
In this seminal exhibition, "The Vilcek Foundation Celebrates LOST: A Showcase of the International Artists and Filmmakers of ABC's Hit Show," the Foundation has partnered with the ABC Television Network to spotlight the immigrant and first-generation cast and crew behind the show, whether they are actors, producers, writers, editors, designers, or technicians. The exhibition will feature original images of the participating individuals taken on the set of LOST; biographical sketches written by Michael Schneider, television editor of Variety magazine; and a collection of squeal-inducing props. (Have you ever wondered how close you would get to a hydrogen bomb?)
Throughout its six seasons, LOST has always been known for its remarkably and refreshingly diverse characters and storylines. Amongst the fascinating characters are Mr. Eko, a drug-trafficking warlord from Nigeria who turns to the Catholic faith; Jin and Sun Kwon, an affluent couple from Seoul trying to outrun their ties to the Korean mob; and Charlie Pace, a British rock star with a fading career and growing heroin habit. [Said heroin will also be on display.] Stories this diverse could only be possible through the collaborative efforts of a group with a global collective imagination.
The ways in which the personal experiences of the international cast and crew have shaped the wildly popular drama are apparent on all levels, from the executive producer down to the best boy grip. Executive producer and writer Carlton Cuse attributes the wide variety of characters and stories of LOST to his family's circuitous history as immigrants and expatriates. His grandfather, in protest against the spread of Communism in Eastern Europe, fled Latvia for New Jersey in the 1920s, believing in the American promise of freedom and opportunity. But, later, as the Cold War turned the climate in the States increasingly chilly to Russian natives, Mr. Cuse's grandfather felt compelled to move to Mexico City, where Mr. Cuse was born. Still, Mr. Cuse absorbed the belief that America was the place of opportunity, and at a young age he moved with his father to Boston. In defining one of his goals for LOST, he says, "To tell the stories of people we don't often see on American TV shows is in at least some part linked to my own background."
Likewise, the character of Sun Kwon was directly influenced by the background of actress Yunjin Kim. Ms. Kim, born in South Korea and raised partly in the United States, originally auditioned for the role of Kate in the series, but didn't quite match the image the producers had in mind for the character. But so impressed were they with Ms. Kim's ability, they created the character of Sun for her, complete with an extensive back story that takes place in a modern, cosmopolitan South Korea. "When I met the producers, they were very interested in my background and knew that I was perfectly bilingual in Korean and English," she remembers. "I think Sun would have been a very different character if I wasn't a first-generation [American]."
And Chinese American writer Melinda Hsu Taylor drew upon her childhood experiences as one of the few Asian Americans in her hometown of Bangor, Maine, to create the show's running theme of isolation; while the South African-born production designer Zack Grobler literally drew the set designs based on his travels throughout the world, transforming sites in Hawaii into places as far-flung as Tunisia, Australia, and Wales.
The exhibition originated in a conversation about the Nobel Prizes. During a press panel about the Hawaii International Film Festival, Rick Kinsel and Jean Higgins, the Emmy Award-winning co-executive producer of LOST, were discussing the prevalence of immigrant Americans amongst the 2009 Nobel Prize awardees – eight out the nine winners were Americans, and of those eight, five were immigrants. It was, they agreed, an example of how diversity bred cultural strength – something that Rick worked to raise awareness of at the Vilcek Foundation, and that Jean witnessed daily on the set of LOST. Seven months later, the Vilcek Foundation and ABC have come together to demonstrate just how potent this cultural strength can be.
"The Vilcek Foundation Celebrates LOST: A Showcase of the International Artists and Filmmakers of ABC's Hit Show," opens on May 20th and will run through June 5th. Please see www.vilcek.org for directions and extended viewing hours.
Silent partners: Dr. Sunae Park Evans, Senior Costume Conservator at the National Museumof American History, with the Ethafoam “models” she uses to embody historical figures.
The shape of things to come: Dr. Park Evans meticulously sculpts a custom body form on which to display Benjamin Franklin’s suit, rarely on view to the public.
Michelle Obama’s inaugural gown, the artwork of designer Jason Wu (shown here with the First Lady), moves from the dance floor to the exhibit floor during its induction ceremony at the National Museum of American History.
Following a tradition observed by every First Lady since 1912, Michelle Obama donated her inaugural gown to the National Museum of American History's "First Ladies at the Smithsonian" exhibition in Washington D.C. this past March. A modern, one-shouldered ball gown in cream-colored silk chiffon, embellished with organza flowers, hand-sewn Swarovski crystals, and a flowing train, the dress was the creation of Jason Wu, a young immigrant designer from Taiwan, then only 26 years old. It was meant, he told reporters, to be a vision of hope.
During the ceremony at the museum, First Lady Obama remarked, "This gown is a masterpiece. It is simple, it's elegant, and it comes from this brilliant young mind, someone who is living the American dream."
The gown was delivered to the museum in surprisingly good condition, with only slight wear-and-tear to the train, and some soiling typical after a long night of dancing. Sending the gown out with the rest of the dry cleaning was not, however, an option for Korean-born Dr. Sunae Park Evans, Senior Costume Conservator at the NMAH. "No way," she said. For once it passed into her hands, the dress morphed from a highly publicized sartorial choice into a national artifact. As such, the gown – despite having been worn only once – must be handled with posterity in mind. Even dry cleaning, Dr. Park Evans explained, would eventually damage the dress: any remaining acidic solvents, typically used in dry cleaning, would cause the fabric to discolor or cause damage to the sequined embellishments.
There probably isn't a person better qualified to handle such a national treasure than Dr. Park Evans. Originally from South Korea, she received her bachelor's and master's degrees in Clothing and Textiles from the Sook Myung Women's University in Seoul. She continued her studies in the United States, earning with a second Master's in Clothing, Textiles, and Design from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and although she had planned to start her career in South Korea, she met her husband while working on her Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and ended up settling in the States. After finishing some additional coursework and internships, she became the sole costume conservator at NMAH. "I am amazed and grateful to be able to work with these national treasures," she says. "I feel very responsible for them."
Despite her impressive academic background in textiles, Dr. Park Evans has learned there is much more to costume conservation than working with fabrics and trimmings. To properly preserve and display a costume, she must develop, through meticulous research – and not a little imagination – a sense of the original wearer. "When I mount costumes," she says, "I look at firsthand information, photographs, journal entries, art from the time period; and, these days, I use the Internet a lot. I try to understand what the people were saying by how they wore their clothes." She adds, "I research the wearer as a historical figure, but also as a person."
Music, for example, was crucial to mounting the magnificent concert costumes of Cuban-American singer Celia Cruz. "I needed to hear her music to understand why she wanted to wear those amazing costumes and headdresses," said Dr. Park Evens. "I realized that she wore them because she wanted to give the best performance possible."
Even something as individual as posture is a historical mystery that the conservator must decipher. Without an accurate body form for support, costumes will become misshapen and damaged. Although modern costumes can be safely displayed on commercial mannequins (albeit mannequins made out of an archival-safe foam), this is especially challenging in the case of historical costumes, which were designed for body types and postures that have changed over the centuries, or meant to be worn over shaping garments such as corsets. To mount costumes such as these, Dr. Park Evans makes the hand-carved custom-made body forms out of planks of Ethafoam (Dow-brand Polyethylene foam) to ensure the costumes maintain their proper shape.
As a conservator – and perhaps, too, as an immigrant – Dr. Park Evans knows that what people choose to wear speaks volumes about them. When asked specifically what clothes can tell us, she says it gives clues to everything from an individual's personality to his or her socio-cultural economic and educational background. But, she says "it would take a semester of study to answer that question."
Dr. Park Evans's work at NMAH is an attempt to help the public get started understanding the historical importance of clothes. Since it opened almost a century ago, the "First Ladies at the Smithsonian" exhibition has been one of the most popular and longest running exhibitions in the museum's history, and although it includes other personal effects of former First Ladies, such as china, letters, and portraits, the inaugural gowns have always been the main draw.
"A gown is a very personal thing," Dr. Park Evans says. "You can really learn about the person and the moment; and in the future, if we preserve it well, future generations can learn about us."
Long after the current administration has left the White House, and countless fashion trends have come and gone, Michelle Obama's inaugural gown will remain as a reminder of hope, of the American dream, embodied in the dazzling creation of one immigrant, and preserved for posterity by another.
Photographs courtesy of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History
Dr. Jan Vilcek fields questions from the audience during the ceremony bestowing him with the Slovakia Goodwill Ambassador Medal.
Slovak Minister of Foreign Affairs, Miroslav Lajcak with the three inaugural honorees: (from left to right) Dr. Jan Vilcek, Mr. Tomas Valasek, and Dr. Jaroslav Fabian.
Having once been considered a traitor for illegally leaving his native Slovakia, then under communist rule, Dr. Jan Vilcek never imagined he'd return one day to a hero's welcome, greeted by dignitaries of state and camera crews. But 45 years later, he did. On March 20, 2010, he arrived in his former homeland to accept the inaugural Goodwill Ambassador Award, a distinction of honor and appreciation from the people of the Slovak Republic to their compatriots abroad, for distinguished accomplishments that contribute to the positive global perception of Slovakia.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Slovakia chose Jan, a Professor of Microbiology at New York University Langone Medical Center, in recognition of his accomplished body of research, and for his role in the co-discovery of Infliximab, a therapeutic drug that has revolutionized the treatment of inflammatory disorders such as Crohn's disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Among those present at the awards ceremony, to express their appreciation firsthand, were patients currently receiving treatments of the drug.
It has not been the drug, however, nor the billions in sales it generates each year, that has catapulted Jan onto the international stage. It is his generosity. In large part, it is for this latter distinction that he was selected for the award. Since patenting the drug in the 1990s, he has donated a sizeable portion of his share of the royalties from the drug's sales to New York University. Valued at $105 million, the gift is said to be the largest from an active, individual faculty member to an academic institution. Along with his wife Marica, Jan has also established the Vilcek Foundation.
It was Dr. Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, an author, television interviewer and producer, preservationist, and civic activist, in concert with her husband, Ambassador Carl Spielvogel, former U.S. Ambassador to the Slovak Republic, who nominated Jan for the award. "We proposed Dr. Vilcek for the Slovakia Goodwill Ambassador Award for two reasons: firstly, for his remarkable body of research, and the contributions he has made to the lives of hundreds of thousands of people he has helped as a result of his work; and secondly, for the order of magnitude of his generosity and creativity, in establishing the Vilcek Foundation to honor fellow immigrants and their innovations."
Honored alongside Jan were two other native Slovaks: Dr. Jaroslav Fabian and Mr. Tomas Valasek. Dr. Fabian, a physicist working in Germany, has pioneered research in spintronics, an emerging field of electronic technology with potential applications in information storage and processing. Mr. Valasek is a Director at the Centre for European Reform, a think tank based in the United Kingdom, and a former Policy Director at the Slovak Ministry of Defense. All three gentlemen returned to Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia, where for days they were feted with radio tours, television interviews, and cocktail receptions.
Jan and Marica discovered that Bratislava had changed a great deal since they left in the early 1960s. Then a city in a socialist Czechoslovakia, the system imposed many restrictions on people's personal and political lives. "The decision to leave [the country] was easy," says Jan. "The hard part was leaving our families." Nevertheless, when the opportunity presented itself in the form of a three-day border permit to visit Vienna in neighboring Austria they grasped it.
Carrying little more than a suitcase and the list of a few professional contacts, the Vilceks felt that Vienna was too perilously close to the Soviet bloc and soon crossed yet another border to West Germany. There they waited for two months to hear whether they would be granted refugee status, necessary in order to receive immigration visas to the United States. In limbo, the tension mounted; had they returned to Czechoslovakia, the couple faced certain prison sentences.
Good fortune smiled upon them. Jan, previously a research scientist at the Institute of Virology in Bratislava, received three job offers while they were still in Germany, including one from New York University School of Medicine. The decision was made to come to New York, motivated in part by the fact that the city was home to Marica's brother, a physician who had been helping the couple since their departure from Czechoslovakia.
Having arrived in the New York, Jan and Marica experienced what they call "beginner's luck." Marica, an art historian, found a position at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Jan applied for, and soon received, grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the New York City Health Research Council, to conduct research on interferon. "That was the relatively easy part," he remembers. "The professional world of science and research is universal. Later on, I never had quite the same record of success."
More difficult was their first year adjusting to their new country. "We had some idea of what America was like, from reading, watching television, and having met a few Americans, but still the idea turned out not to be completely realistic." One of the many surprises they encountered was that streets of New York City were lined with humble townhouses and brownstones rather than the glittering skyscrapers they had seen in magazines and on television. More daunting, however, was coming face to face with the tumultuous American political scene of the 1960s which they knew nothing about, cut off as they had been from news about this country prior to their arrival.
Equally pressing was the nagging uncertainty of whether they would ever again be able to see their families and friends. The process of becoming adjusted to life in America, they soon realized, would be hard work, painstaking and unrelenting: "We saw things differently; we were constantly comparing the old to the new. Eventually, we realized we had to stay away from that mentality, because it was counterproductive." And, slowly, the new city began to replace Bratislava in their hearts and minds. Today, they regard themselves, first and foremost, as New Yorkers.
The "Immigrant Gene"
For the last several years, the Vilceks have devoted much of their time to shaping the mission of the Vilcek Foundation, shepherding the growth of its awards programs, and expanding its events and exhibitions calendar. The more involved they become with the vast number of ways immigrants contribute to the arts and sciences in this country, the more convinced they are that, "There must be some kind of natural selection among the people who have the guts to leave their home countries and their families they have something that helps them succeed." Marica calls it an "immigrant gene." "All Americans have it," she believes. "Either your ancestors have it, or you have it and it makes you a little different."
The Foundation celebrates that mysterious gene, that "certain something" that compels those, like the Vilceks and thousands of others, to say goodbye to their networks of family and friends, to strike out on their own, to make better lives for themselves and the generations to follow.
In both his career and his philanthropy, Mr. Fuad El-Hibri is inspired by his experiences as an immigrant.
By the standards of most, Fuad El-Hibri is a successful man. He is the Chairman and CEO of Emergent BioSolutions, Inc., a Maryland-based biopharmaceutical company that is the sole producer of the only FDA-approved vaccine against anthrax and in 2008, one of very few companies able to expand its operations during the worst recession to grip America in decades. In 2009, Mr. El-Hibri was awarded the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for Greater Washington; and earlier this year, he was the recipient of an International Business Leadership Award, bestowed by the Maryland-based World Trade Center Institute.
Proud as he is of those accomplishments, Mr. El-Hibri says that he is most grateful for being in a position to help others. "I am very fortunate that I have found my vocation. Emergent BioSolutions is a New York Stock Exchange Company, but its mission is to save and protect people's lives; it's something that gives me great satisfaction."
Perhaps that "something" is in his genes, for Mr. El-Hibri comes from a long line of philanthropists. In 2001, he continued that legacy when he formed the El-Hibri Charitable Foundation, inspired by his father, Ibrahim El-Hibri, recently deceased. Based in Washington D.C., the foundation awards annually the El-Hibri Peace Education Prize to peace educators. It also funds programs along four initiatives outlined in its mission: Peace Education, Interfaith Dialogue, Humanitarian Aid, and Social Justice. Currently, the El-Hibri Charitable Foundation supports hundreds of orphans in Lebanon, funds treatment programs for HIV/AIDS patients in the District of Columbia, and subsidizes independent documentaries to spark dialogue about religious and cultural diversity.
Both Mr. El-Hibri's business and philanthropic ventures are also informed by his immigrant background. Raised in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East by a German mother and a Lebanese father, he gained more international exposure as a child than most Americans experience in a lifetime. But this world traveler knew early on that for college, he wanted to come to the States "especially California," he laughs. "Who didn't have that dream?"
That dream was fulfilled when he was accepted to Stanford University. Upon his arrival at that Ivy League school, he felt driven to prove himself. "At home, your family and relations are known," he explains, "but when you come to a new country, you want to show that you can contribute and that you can succeed. It raises the bar a little bit."
After completing his undergraduate degree at Stanford, Mr. El-Hibri went on to earn his Master's in Public and Private Management from Yale University, before accepting a position in operations management at CitiCorp, which took him back around the world, to countries such as Greece, Indonesia, and Australia. Of those days he recalls, "I took everything that I could apply from these experiences. It helped me understand how important culture and cultural differences are. But more importantly, it helped me understand that if we could bridge these differences and build a dialogue, if we were more open to understanding each other and being more tolerant, we would be in a much happier place."
This imperative, to overcome differences, provided the impetus behind the annual El-Hibri Prize for Peace Education. Established in 2007, the $10,000 cash award is granted to individuals, selected by an independent nominating committee, who have made a major contribution to the field of peace education, a relatively new and still evolving area of conflict resolution. ""We are trying to get to the crucial goal of establishing a more evident culture of peace - conflict resolution is important, but it comes after violence has happened." says Zen Hunter-Ishikawa, Vice President of Operations at the El-Hibri Charitable Foundation. "Peace education work is not one of those headline-grabbing kinds of news items, but through our humble prize, we try to promote awareness for this important work." Fortunately, this is already happening: the field is growing and gaining prominence, and says Mr. El-Hibri, the message of peace is now spreading to more places of conflict than ever before.
The past three winners of the prize are Dr. Mary Elizabeth King, Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Peace in Costa Rica; Scott Kennedy, the former Mayor of Santa Cruz, California; and Professor Abdul Aziz Said, the Mohammed Said Farsi Chair of Islamic Peace, who has taught for 53 years at American University in Washington D.C. All three are innovators and pioneers in the field of peace education. Mr. Scott, for example, helped introduce the concept of peace delegations in conflict zones and subsequently led more than three-dozen such delegations to the Middle East.
The Foundation's other projects cut a wide swath across the globe. To name a few, the organization has sponsored the construction of one orphanage in Beirut, Lebanon, and is currently undertaking another just outside of the city; it has also financed the deployment of mobile dental units to improve personal hygiene in Latin America. On the domestic front, the foundation backs groups such as Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, and Unity Productions Foundation, whose vision is to promote social justice and interfaith harmony
Not yet a decade old, the organization is just getting started, says Mr. El-Hibri. "It's taken some time to get organized; we bought a building and renovated it, so it's only been the last few years that we've been able to focus on our programs. We hope to grow significantly over the years."