The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Rebecca Irvin
Rebecca Irvin
The Rolex Awards for Enterprise
The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative

Rebecca Irvin joined Rolex SA in Geneva in 1993 to head the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, a unique corporate program that supports innovative people and projects in science, exploration, the environment, cultural heritage and technology. Supported by a staff of 15 at the Secretariat in Geneva, Ms. Irvin looks after all aspects of these international awards, including choosing and organizing the Selection Committee, overseeing the team researching the applicants and directing the worldwide publicity – publications, website, advertising, events and media relations – that benefits the Laureates and their ground-breaking work.

In 2001, with the support of Rolex Chief Executive Patrick Heiniger, she set up the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, a unique philanthropic program in the arts. Ms Irvin and her team also organize and recruit the distinguished artists and advisors who participate in the Rolex Arts Initiative.

Before joining Rolex, Ms Irvin was deputy head of communications at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva from 1991 to 1993. From 1982 to 1991, she enjoyed a career as a news agency and freelance radio journalist, working for United Press International, Reuters, NBC News and Swiss Radio International in Geneva, London and Lisbon.

A dual American and Swiss national, Ms Irvin graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 1981 with a B.A. in political science and modern languages. She earned a Masters in international history and politics from the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva in 1985. More recently, she completed studies in piano with a degree in 1999 at the Popular Music Conservatory in Geneva, alongside her full-time work at Rolex. She is married and has two grown children.
Presenter Interview
The Rolex Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative, fostering encounters between artists across generations 
The Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative is Rolex’s support program for young, emerging artists in six disciplines in the arts: dance, theater, music, literature, film and visual arts. The program’s goal is to provide the opportunity for these artists to spend a year with a distinguished or established artist (i.e. “Mentor”) in their discipline. Every other year since this program’s inception in 2002, a Mentor from each discipline has been appointed by the program’s Advisory Board, which consists of internationally renowned artists and professionals. The promising young "Protégés" are identified by members of the six Nominating Panels, one for each discipline, made up of experts in the given field from all over the world. Each panel selects three or four finalists, with the Mentor ultimately selecting his or her Protégé from among these finalists. (See below for father details on this process.)
This program is repeated on a two-year cycle with each Protégé receiving instruction and guidance from the Mentor for a period of one year. To celebrate the completion of each cycle, Rolex hosts a gala, which for the past three cycles has been held in New York City. More than 500 guests from the international artistic community are invited to the gala, including respected and renowned artists, curators, administrators and other arts leaders.. Over dinner, Rolex presents short documentaries of the year’s activities and outcome of each Mentor-Protégé pair in the cycle. The following interview was conducted in mid-November, 36 hours after the gala in New York City in mid-November 2007celebrating the completion of the third cycle.

(Interviewer: Yoko Shioya, Artistic Director of the Japan Society)

I am familiar with the system and philosophy of the Mentor and Protégé program to some degree and what goes on behind the scenes because I myself served as one of the Nominators for the theater discipline of the program two years ago. But I would like to take this opportunity to ask you to give us a general introduction to the program. First of all, what was it that inspired Rolex to undertake a program in support of the arts? And, how did it come to take the form of this Mentor and Protégé program?
The program took about two years to develop, from 1999 through 2001. We also have another philanthropic program in science and the environment called the Rolex Awards for Enterprise. The Mentor and Protégé program grew out of that. Around 1999 we started asking ourselves, “Could we extend the Rolex Awards program to the arts?” Then we quickly came to the conclusion, “No, we can’t support the arts in the same way that we fund science and environment projects and still have a meaningful program.” I suggested to Patrick Heiniger, the CEO of Rolex, that we should set up a separate program in the arts and we started researching it.
From the beginning we thought it should be international, should be ongoing, should be very diverse, and should address many different art forms. Basically we talked with a lot of artists and arts leaders to establish what was missing in arts philanthropy. Also, I hired a small arts advocacy firm in New York and had them do some research. This program was a result of a combination of our thinking in Rolex, speaking with people in the arts, having this firm research the market and make some recommendations, and a great deal of brainstorming among experts. So it wasn’t one person who had this idea.
The question was, “What can Rolex do in the arts that would be really unique and interesting?” “What could we do that wasn’t being done and that was needed?” Young people do not necessarily need money. They need contacts, exposure and funding. Then we came up with the idea that something that could make a real difference in this kind of environment would be to provide young artists with a Mentor who could give them valuable guidance. In 2001,the first Advisory Board met in Geneva. And we officially launched the program and started with the first pairs of Mentors and Protégés in 2002.

When Rolex started this program, did you have any specific image of what the mentorship would be like?
The guidelines that we set up five years ago are pretty much still valid. We made suggestions how the mentoring might take place, but the only thing we said to Mentors, which we still say to them, is that we want them to commit to spending at least 30 days in the course of a year with the Protégé. And most of them spend quite a bit more than that. We thought that they could work together, they could talk, the young person could watch rehearsals or simply observe, or they could have intensive weeks of internship. It has mostly worked out that way, but we are starting to see variations in these roles.

Three cycles of the program have been completed now. When you say that you are now seeing changes in the roles of the Mentor and Protégé, how are they changing?
Looking at the third cycle, I think the artists are getting more ambitious, and really more authentic in their work together. Obviously some relationships (between Mentor and Protégé) have been better than others and some are closer than others. However what’s been interesting to observe in the third cycle is that generally Mentors were getting more involved in the Protégés’ work. We have three such examples this year. One is a collaboration in the visual arts: between John Baldessari and Alejandro Cesarco. They actually created a piece of work together. In the gift bag from the gala there is a book called Retrospective, which illustrates a series of prints that were done by these two artists. This is an example where Mentor and Protégé actually produced a piece of work together. We had never had such a thing before.
Another example was Stephen Frears (Film Mentor) who said, “I am not going to be making a film during this period. I don’t want somebody following me around. I would like to follow a young Protégé who is making a film.” So the role was reversed. Stephen actually went to Peru (where Josu? M?ndez, film Protégé, comes from). He did not go there when the Protégé shot the film but he was certainly there before, collaborated on the script and played an important role in the editing and post-production processes. That was an example of the Mentor basically following the Protégé, rather than vice versa.
One more interesting example that happened this year was in literature: The Mentor, Tahar Ben Jelloun, guided his Protégé (Edem Awumey), who was writing his third novel. They discussed the story and character development – the Mentor participated a lot. But Tahar Ben Jelloun also asked his Protégé to comment on a new work that he was doing. So the Protégé participated in the creation of his Mentor’s new novel.

Why did this kind of collaborative work happen for the first time in the third cycle?
I don’t know why it happened now. I can only speculate. First of all, I think the level of Protégé is rising. Not that they were not good in the first cycle, but the recent Protégés have been more established artists. We have now set a cut-off age: No Protégé can be over 40 years old. We are aware that the Mentors are interested in a Protégé’s body of work, and most of them have the idea of “young” artists – not students but young professionals who are starting out. So, the Protégés in the third cycle are older – and the level is getting higher, more accomplished than those in the first and second cycles, I think. But also we have to pull back a little bit and consider that this program is really for young artists who “need” it; not the people who are already making it on their own. The average age of the Protégés is still about 30, because Protégés in dance and especially in music are very young. Also, sometimes a Mentor does not want someone who is too old.

Another reason for this increased collaboration involves personality. At the beginning, we thought that the Mentors would be the givers. But when the second cycle got started and ever since then, the Mentors have told us, “We are actually getting more out of this than the Protégés.” So maybe we have shifted our emphasis from “passing down” to one more of “exchange.” And then, we at Rolex have become more confident in this program. I think you realize what a scary thing this program is – because we basically are throwing strangers together, and hoping that something is going to happen.

It is basically a sort of forced “blind date.”
(Laughs) Yes, I often say we have not had any divorces so far! Of course all relationships are different, but so far, each of the pairs have had meaningful exchanges. So we are now more confident that the program actually does work. We at the Rolex Secretariat (who run the program) are taking risks all the time, but I think we can be more relaxed as we have learned through what has happened in the program.
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