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Asia Society Launches 50th Anniversary Celebration with Major Exhibition of Artworks Owned by Three Generations of Rockefellers

Feb 24, 2006
Description : 
A Passion for Asia: The Rockefeller Family Collects

February 24 through September 3, 2006
Note: Exhibition sections on Spirituality and Landscape will close on May 14 and select fragile objects will be rotated.

Media Preview: Tuesday, February 21, 2006, 12:00 to 2:00 p.m.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its founding in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller 3rd and in honor of the Rockefeller family's longstanding commitment to Asia, the Asia Society presents a major exhibition that focuses on the important contributions of the Rockefeller family as collectors of Asian art.

A Passion for Asia: The Rockefeller Family Collects features 150 of the most stunning and important Asian artworks originally purchased and owned by family members. The exhibition is comprised of paintings, sculpture, and decorative art and includes rarely seen artworks still owned by family members and others drawn from major public collections. The exhibition, the first such gathering of its kind, also includes archival photographs and documents that illuminate the commitment of the Rockefeller family to honoring and preserving the rich cultural and artistic heritage of the diverse peoples of Asia.

The exhibition is co-curated by Vishakha N. Desai, Asia Society President, and Adriana Proser, Asia Society's John H. Foster Curator of Traditional Asian Art. Drs. Desai and Proser worked closely with a variety of museums and private collections to ensure that the exhibition represents the family's passion for collecting Asian art. The exhibition includes loans from the Rockefeller Archive Center, Rockefeller University, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, the Rockefeller family Kykuit estate in upstate New York, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, David Rockefeller, Happy Rockefeller, Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, Hope Aldrich, Steven C. Rockefeller and a selection of objects from the Asia Society?s permanent collection.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Asia Society will publish a 224-page, lavishly illustrated book, A Passion for Asia: The Rockefeller Legacy. The book celebrates the family's deep personal connections to Asia and the enduring legacy of the institutions they created.

"Perhaps no other family has, over the past century, brought about such a sea change in the way Americans understand and engage with Asia as have the Rockefellers," said Asia Desai. "As one of the institutional heirs to this great Rockefeller legacy, the Asia Society is proudly celebrating fifty years of promoting a deeper understanding of Asia. During our 50th anniversary year, we pay tribute to this remarkable family, whose vision and foresight in creating the Asia Society seems especially relevant in today's 'Asian Century.'"

"The Rockefeller Family Collects exhibition includes stellar objects drawn from private collections and public museums around the country, seen here together for the first time," noted Melissa Chiu Asia Society Museum Director. "Significantly, this is also the first time that Asia Society is devoting the entire museum to a single exhibition since our renovation and expansion in 2001."

About the Rockefeller Family

The exhibition traces the Rockefeller family's interest in Asian art and philanthropy beginning with John D. Rockefeller Jr. (1874-1960) and his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (1874-1948). Together they assembled extensive collections of Asian sculpture, ceramics, prints and textiles. According to exhibition curator Adriana Proser, "The Rockefellers were not content to display the works in their collections simply as isolated objects; they very carefully created environments that would enhance and illuminate the cultures from which they came. The Rockefeller children and grandchildren learned from a young age that art was an important expression of the human spirit and the magnificence of many cultures."

JDR Jr. and Abby Aldrich raised six children - Abby, JDR 3rd, Nelson, Laurance, Winthrop and David - in a gracious New York townhouse on West 54th Street. Growing up surrounded by beautiful artworks, successive generations of Rockefellers were instilled with a profound respect for the objects as well as for the cultures from which they came. Also figuring prominently in the exhibition is Abby's sister, Lucy, who shared this passion for the arts and cultures of Asia.

The Exhibition

Of the 150 artworks in the exhibition, approximately half are drawn from the Society's permanent collection, amassed by JDR 3rd and his wife, Blanchette, and bequeathed to Asia Society in 1978. Archival photographs and documents provide the background for understanding how the Rockefeller family not only collected Asian art but also integrated it into their daily lives.

The exhibition includes four sections. A section called Nourishing the Spirit (note: this section closes May 14) looks at the Rockefeller family collections and spirituality through select objects and photographs. Though the family collected religious art for aesthetic reasons, they also considered these artworks as a means to enrich their spiritual lives. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller in particular was intrigued by eastern religions. Exhibition photographs depict the Buddha rooms she set up, in which incense was burned, in an attempt to re-create the ambiance of the Asian temples she had visited.

An important loan on display in this section is a striking life-size Tang Dynasty sculpture (618-907) of a bodhisattva, acquired by JDR Jr. in 1926, which graced the front hall of the family's New York townhouse on 54th Street. Considered to be one of the best examples from this period, the piece has been publicly exhibited outside of the Kykuit estate only twice before this exhibition. Nelson Rockefeller was so drawn to it that while still a boy, he asked his mother if she would leave it to him after she passed away (he did inherit the piece, which he eventually had brought to Kykuit). There is also a marvelous 8th century Thai bronze sculpture of the Buddha which was one of JDR 3rd's favorite pieces and is now in the collection of his daughter, Hope Aldrich.

The section titled Home as Aesthetic Retreat includes decorative arts, prints, and paintings from India, Iran, and Southeast and East Asia. Objects were collected by JDR Jr., Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Lucy Truman Aldrich, JDR 3rd, David and Nelson Rockefeller, and Steven C. Rockefeller. Highlights include 19th century Japanese prints and robes and a magnificent Korean storage chest (Choson period, mid 18th to early 19th century) decorated with back-painted oxhorn plaques. Also included are Nabeshima and Arita ware porcelain that the Rockefellers used for family meals, as well as to display in their homes. (Note: Select fragile objects on view in this section will be rotated over the six month period of the exhibition).

A smaller section of the exhibition, Landscape Design: Asia and the Rockefeller Gardens (note: this section closes May 14) includes historical photographs and plans of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden at the family's summer home on Mount Desert Island, Maine and the Japanese gardens at Kykuit. Photographs and plans in this section of the exhibition show the Mount Desert Island garden as an unconventional blending of East Asian landscape architecture with a Western-style flower garden. There are also photographs of the Japanese gardens at Kykuit, which include a Japanese teahouse.

The Archival Room section provides background and history on the Rockefeller family, how they came to be interested in Asia, and their deeply ingrained commitment to philanthropic pursuits. In addition to historical photographs, letters, and a family tree, there is a short video loop on display that includes footage from John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller's visit to East Asia in 1921 - their only trip to Asia - as well as photographs from other family member trips to Asia dating back to the 1920s.

The Book, A Passion for Asia: The Rockefeller Legacy

Illustrated with archival photographs and images of works in the Rockefeller collections, the 224-page book is broader than an exhibition catalogue or institutional history and is intended to provide a sense of the family's connections to Asia in the context of Asian history and U.S.-Asian relations.

An introductory chapter examines the Rockefeller?s Asian legacy through past, present, and future. The book is divided into three major sections describing the family history, examining the family's practice of art collecting, and reviewing the past, present, and future of the Asia Society.

The first section details the family's early links with Asia, including John and Abby Aldrich's first encounters with Asia and the family's pioneering philanthropic ventures in China. The section also highlights the family's often personal engagement with Asian culture, such as Abby's deep interest in Buddhist spirituality and culture. The second section focuses on the tradition of art collecting in the Rockefeller family. It includes an essay by Kykuit curator Cynthia Bronson Altman, who describes the principles that guided the growth and shaping of several Rockefeller family art collections. A distinct feature of this section is a series of ten focused examinations of select objects by Dr. Proser describing how each came to be selected, displayed, and treasured by their Rockefeller owners.

Dr. Desai is the primary author of the third section, which includes inside perspectives from three former Asia Society Presidents: Phillips Talbot (1970-81), Robert Oxnam (1981-92) and Nicholas Platt (1992-2004). They analyze the Society's growth from an Upper East Side cultural salon and policy forum into a vibrant, multi-centered international hub for U.S.-Asian interaction and engagement.

A Passion for Asia: The Rockefeller Legacy will be on sale at AsiaStore at Asia Society and Museum and online at www.asiastore.org ($60 hardcover; $45 softcover).

The Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection of Asian Art

Long known to specialists and enthusiasts of Asian art throughout the world, the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection of Asian Art forms the basis of the Asia Society's permanent collection. Often described as "gemlike," the collection ranges from sculpture to imperial porcelain and represents a geographic span from present-day Afghanistan to East and Southeast Asia. The gift of the collection in 1978, which includes 258 objects, served as a primary impetus for the building of the Asia Society's headquarters on Park Avenue.

The Collection is noted for its high proportion of masterpiece-quality works and for the scholarly importance of many of them. Its strengths include Chinese ceramics of the Song and Ming periods, Chola period Indian bronzes (there are some 15 in the collection), and early Southeast Asian sculpture. The Collection is also widely admired for its very special character, a unique cohesiveness that reflected the personal tastes and cultural passions of Mr. and Mrs. Rockefeller themselves.

Beginning in 1963, the Rockefellers were advised by the noted Asian art specialist Sherman E. Lee of the Cleveland Museum of Art, who has said the Rockefellers' overriding concern "was that the collection be a source for public education and delight." Objects from the collection are on view continuously at Asia Society, which strives to show it in new and different ways.

A Passion For Asia: The Rockefeller Family Collects exhibition and A Passion for Asia: The Rockefeller Legacy book are made possible, in part, with generous assistance from AIG and the Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund.

About Asia Society's 50th Anniversary Year

A Passion for Asia: The Rockefeller Family Collects exhibition and book form the centerpiece of the Asia Society's 50th anniversary celebration, a year full of festivities and high-profile events around the world. Major exhibitions during the 50th anniversary year include Asian American Art Now, on view September 8 through December 10. The Asia Society's first major group show devoted to contemporary Asian American art in more than twelve years, the exhibition will focus on artists born in the U.S. after 1970. Gilded Splendor: Treasures of China's Liao Empire (907-1125), October 4 through December 31, comprises more than 200 spectacular, recently excavated objects from Inner Mongolia that reveal the significant role of the Liao in China during the pivotal 10th through 12th centuries.

Also in conjunction with the Asia Society's 50th anniversary celebration, a special selection of institutional photographs documenting Asia Society's history is on display in the lobby of the Asia Society and Museum from February 24 through May 14.

For more information on Asia Society's 50th anniversary, visit www.asiasociety.org. AIG is the global sponsor of Asia Society's 50th Anniversary.
About the Asia Society 
Asia Society is the leading global organization working to strengthen relationships and promote understanding among the people, leaders, and institutions of Asia and the United States. Founded in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller 3rd, Asia Society is a nonpartisan, nonprofit educational institution with offices in Hong Kong, Houston, Los Angeles, Manila, Melbourne, New York, San Francisco, Shanghai, and Washington, D.C.

Asia Society and Museum
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