The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Ralph Samuelson
Ralph Samuelson
Ralph Samuelson is Senior Advisor to the Asian Cultural Council (ACC). After graduating from Cornell University he received a Master’s Degree in Music from Wesleyan University. After working as an instructor in ethnomusicology and a festival researcher, he joined the staff of the JDR 3rd Fund (predecessor of the ACC) in 1976 and was appointed ACC Director in 1991. He assumed his present post of ACC Senior Advisor in July 2008. In addition to his activities at ACC, Samuelson has made a career for himself as a top-level shakuhachi flute performer of both the traditional repertoire and contemporary works.

Asian Cultural Council
Asian Cultural Council
Arts Organization of the Month
Presenter Interview
Looking into the heart of the Asian Cultural Council, an organization that has helped support over 5,000 artists 
The Asian Cultural Council (ACC) is an organization that has been promoting exchange in the arts between America and the countries of Asia for four decades by providing Asian artists with grants to stay and study in the U.S. and American artists with grants for stay in Asia. In its 45 years of activities the ACC has given grants to over 5,000 artists and researchers. Many ACC grant recipients (fellows) have gone on to become world-renowned artists, and the Asian network that has been created in the process is invaluable. We spoke with Ralph Samuelson, who has worked at the ACC for 32 years, 17 as director, and who this July advanced to the post of Senior Advisor. Samuelson, who has been an understanding friend and supporter to so many artists and the backbone of the Asian network, is interviewed by Yoko Shioya, who has served a similar role in US-Japan cultural exchange in her position as Artistic Director at the Japan Society. She asks him about the spirit behind the organization’s grant program.
(Interview: Yoko Shioya, Artistic Director, Japan Society)

The Asian Cultural Council (ACC) is one of the most generous grant-making organizations in the U.S. in terms of giving financial support to artists.
    Well, not in terms of amount of money, because the amount of money we give is small. But in a way, yes. The grant includes not simply money but a range of support services that help grantees achieve their goals and objectives. Many grantees have a big impact in their home communities and home institutions. We select our grantees—whom we call fellows—with care, and support each of them with care. That is the hallmark of the program.

I very much respect the way you support artists, as you said, “with care.” ACC takes care of not just the practical side for your fellows from other countries, such as arranging a place to live for the several months of residency of each fellow. Also I know—from conversations I have had with many ACC fellows—that, when Asian artists are here in New York, ACC staff members meet them and ask what they are interested in, what they want to do and where they want to go. And what ACC does is not just listen to and help them to do what they want to do, but also gives additional information and makes recommendations concerning people they should meet in the light of their career, field, and interest. Then making calls to those people and making appointments for them. Sometimes ACC even arranges a translator for those meetings in cases where the fellow’s English is not enough for meaningful communication. How did this “with care” policy begin?
    It was Mr. John D. Rockefeller 3rd’s idea. In 1963, he established a small private foundation, called the JDR 3rd Fund, funded by himself. It was a small organization and very carefully focused. Its objective was to support cultural exchange in the arts, within the United States and countries in Asia.
    He asked a gentleman named Porter McCrary for advice, a man who had already created the International Exhibitions Program at the Museum of Modern Art, the first effort of MoMA to send American art abroad: to Europe and to Latin America primarily.
    What they decided was, “Let’s target funds directly to talented individuals” – a program which could be much more effective than, for example, making small grants to large institutions. They thought, “If we carefully select the best people, and then we carefully work with them to help them achieve their goals and objectives, even modest funding can have a very big impact.”
    This also reflected a belief in the power of the individual to affect change. How can you maximize the chances for that happening by setting up a program where you really focus on individuals? This concept is very labor intensive and expensive to maintain but was very reflective of John D. Rockefeller’s thinking at that time. And it remains the core of what we do today.

The year the Asian Cultural Council was established as a not-for-profit organization was 1980. But when ACC held a big fundraising gala several years ago, it announced that it was “celebrating its 40th anniversary.” That means you consider the birth of the JDR 3rd Fund to be the start of ACC?
    Yes. John D. Rockefeller 3rd actually set up three separate programs initially. The primary one was this engagement with Asian cultural exchange, called the Asian Cultural Program. Asia was defined as the range of countries from Afghanistan, eastward through Japan. Geographically we still define it that way. He was also interested in the role of arts in education, so he had another program called the Arts in Education Program, which was smaller but very significant – only in America. And then he had another effort – just for a few years – called the Youth Program. But the primary activity was the Asian Cultural Program, and we have been basically doing the same model of grant making since 1963 – a fellowship program to support individuals who work in the arts: artists, scholars, and arts professionals. We like to say that consistency is our greatest strength. Let me give you some clear details of the historical thread.
    John D. Rockefeller 3rd was one of the 3rd-generation Rockefellers. He was a professional philanthropist: he was a quiet, behind-the-scenes person. He went to Asia for the first time in 1929, after graduating from Princeton University. He fell in love with Asia, and then later, he returned to Japan with John Foster Dulles’s group after WWII, after the San Francisco Peace Treaty (1951). He was asked to work specifically in cultural relations. He also began to travel outside of Japan with his wife Blanchette; they became engaged with Asian art. So they began a series of efforts to develop closer relationships between these two parts of the world. Still in that post-Pacific War era, he felt very strongly that Asians and Americans needed to understand each other better. Among his many efforts were, as you know, re-vitalization of the Japan Society (became president of JS in 1952); founding of the Asia Society in 1956, and then creating the JDR 3rd Fund in 1963.
    But in 1978 Mr. Rockefeller died unexpectedly in an automobile accident. In his will there was no provision for the JDR 3rd Fund, and there had never been an endowment. By that time, the Arts in Education was finished, so basically only the Asian Cultural Program remained.
    To make a long story short, the Trustees of his estate and his wife had a great commitment to the value of this program; they felt that it should be continued. So they provided a small endowment fund to help set up an independent 501(c)(3), a publicly-supported foundation to continue the work of the JDR Fund’s Asian Cultural Program.

So that was in 1980…
    Yes. The idea would be, “Go out and seek to raise money, to keep this program going.” We decided to call it the Asian Cultural Council, to continue this work. New name, new administrative structure, and then going out to raise funds publicly – that’s how we started the ACC in 1980.
    In our early years, we received very important endowment support from the Ford Foundation, the Starr Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, etc. And then, from Mr. Seiji Tsutsumi and the Seibu Saison Group (in Japan), paid to the ACC thru the Japan Foundation. We also started raising annual money from other donors. And then we started to raise annual funds in Asia.

Yes, ACC now has several offices in Asia.
    First we set up an office in Japan for our Japan Program with Mr. Tsutsumi’s help. In 1985 we went to Hong Kong. In 1995, Taiwan; and in 2000, the Philippines. Tokyo, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines – these are the places where we have local groups that raise funds with us, and we use the funds to make grants for that region. Therefore, we can do more in those places than in other parts of Asia.

So is the money raised in each of those regions restricted to use only for the people of that specific region?
    Each case is a little bit different from others, but basically, that’s right. In the case of Hong Kong, the money we raise is used to make grants to individuals as well as institutions in Hong Kong and mainland China. In Taiwan, it’s specifically for Taiwan. In the Philippines, it’s only for the Philippines.
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