US recluse gives £20m to London college
The School of Oriental and African Studies aims to train the future cultural leaders of Southeast Asia
By Anna Somers Cocks. News, Issue 251, November 2013
Published online: 01 November 2013
A reclusive and ascetic Chicagoan media millionaire has donated £20m to the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) to advance the study and preservation of Buddhist and Hindu art in Southeast Asia.
Fred Eychaner (born 1945) made a fortune in ethnic and local newspapers, television and radio (in 2002, his company, Newsweb Corp, sold its Chicago television station to Rupert Murdoch for $500m), but, like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, he shuns consumption and celebrity and prefers to do good through his Alphawood Foundation.
London, an axis of Asian art
In a very rare interview, he told The Art Newspaper why he chose Soas. “First of all, outside Asia, London is the virtual crossroads of the Asian art world, with the magnificent British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Soas, and Oxford and Cambridge in close proximity. Virtually everyone in the field passes through London. Soas is small, but for 100 years it has maintained an exceptional and intense focus on the cultures, languages, art, politics and history of Asia and Africa. It builds bridges to the universities, museums and galleries of Asia, including areas where the arts have been held back by strife and politics in the 20th century.”
Eychaner did a postgraduate diploma in Southeast Asian art at Soas in 2009, on the course set up by Hettie Elgood and others 25 years ago, and collects art from the region, which he displays in his austere house, designed for him and his partner in 1998 by Tadao Ando. The moment when he decided to make his donation came on a trip to Myanmar, in January 2012, with Peter Sharrock, Soas’s Southeast Asian expert. “Peter and I stood outside the closed campus of Yangon University and talked about countries that had lost generations of scholars, curators, archaeologists and conservators to politics and war,” he says. “What could be done now to accelerate the conservation of their magnificent ancient monuments and bring new energy to their museums, art galleries and fine arts departments?”
A vital part of the donation, therefore, is to fund scholarships for students from the region who will return to their home countries and contribute to the investigation of Southeast Asian art. “This is how our gift will be transformative,” Eychaner says. “Over time, Soas graduates who benefit from the programmes we are creating today will bring their scholarship and talents to museums, universities, galleries and other institutions in Southeast Asia.” The 80 overseas students will be chosen from the most able in the whole region, especially Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. They will be from heritage organisations, museums, universities and government departments, so the aim is that their countries’ national policies will benefit, but also that Soas will build up long-lasting relationships with these countries.
Most of the donation—£15m—is allocated to developing Soas’s expertise through these scholarships and a chair in Southeast Asian art, another in Tibetan and Buddhist art and a senior lectureship in the curating and museology of Asian art. Another £5m will be spent on developing facilities for Soas in the north wing of Senate House, the large Art Deco headquarters of the University of London.
"This is indeed a visionary philanthropic donation, which will have a profound and long-lasting effect on the understanding and study of Southeast Asian art," says Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Musuem. "Soas has long fulfilled a distinguished role in the study of Asian cultures and I can’t think of a more fitting institution to develop this field further. The British Museum has only recently appointed a curator of Southeast Asian art, herself a Soas graduate. We look forward to further developing our already strong links with Soas through this exciting initiative.”
Remembering his roots
Eychaner’s life is a classic American success story, but he has not forgotten that it does not work for everyone. He was a big donor to the Democratic party and has helped a charity that specialises in reinvestigating the cases of death-row convicts. When asked how he came to art, he says: “My parents were farm kids and my mother was the only one in either family to go to college, but they valued education and I benefited from arts and crafts classes, largely missing today in America due to economic cutbacks. My grandfather lost his 60 acres to the bank in the Depression, but the bankruptcy judge allowed him to keep his pick-up truck and household items. That night, they moved into town and slowly started rebuilding; doing odd jobs, delivering groceries, slowly stabilising themselves. After college, where I studied journalism, I hitchhiked in Central America, exploring Tikal and Copán and other sites.” Asked why he chose Tadao Ando for his house, he says: “My two passions from college are architecture and dance. I did the standard photography course in journalism school and shot Chicago’s historic early industrial bridges; I loved the beauty of those structures and the engineering ingenuity they embody. I can’t really say which came first: my interest in history, architecture, dance, archaeology, Asia. It all slowly accreted over time.
“But I’d always thought that if I were fortunate enough to build a home, it would be a rigorous exercise and make a contribution to the built environment. I originally wanted to hire an emerging Chicago architect, but this was at the end of post-Modernism, and I was disappointed in the search for local talent. I did, however, keep thinking about Tadao Ando’s early work. I saw the Ando show at MoMA [in New York] in 1991 and called him cold the following January. At that time, his only work outside Japan was at Vitra in Weil am Rhein, so I asked him whether he would be interested in a project in Chicago, and he accepted.”
Eychaner buys mainly Southeast Asian art (usually at auction), which he keeps in the large, bare spaces of his house. His final comment is typical of the man. “I’m not sure whether we should say I have a ‘collection’. The art we live with is broader than others might prefer. If and when I do loans, it’s anonymous. There is no catalogue published. It’s about ideas and individual images, not about me.”
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