From the Archives: The Asia Society in 1981

by Michael Demarest Photographed by Neil Selkirk
Thursday, December 7, 2017


This article was originally published in the Summer 1981 issue of AVENUE.

“There is going to be a new Asian era in world history, and we had better get ready for it.” – Robert Oxnam

The eight-story building at Park Avenue and 70th Street is a striking, inviting response to that challenge. The Asia Society’s new headquarters was completed in April after two years of building and, amazingly, was finished on time and within its $16.6 million budget. Sited at the crest of Lenox Hill where the old Milliken house once stood, it fits happily into that elegant environment.

The building is faced with Oklahoma granite in two shades of red, as some neighbors have noted with alarm, but they may take assurance from the fact that Architect Edward Larrabee Barnes took his mosaic inspiration from the palace of the 16th Century Indian Emperor Akbar. No Communist he. (Besides, it’s a rosy red.) Barnes is a particularly gifted designer of museums, notably the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and was also responsible for the new IBM tower at Madison Avenue and 57th Street, a somewhat less felicitous creation. The Asia Society building is in appearance and function just what it should be – and that is a great deal. As Barnes says, “I think the building is going to work. People are going to feel welcome in it, and that is after all the point of the whole endeavor.”

There has been some mild criticism of the building’s exterior. The New York Times’ Paul Goldberger calls it “more than a slight bit confused.” Admirers of Barnes’s design, on the other hand, argue that he has done an extraordinary job of setting a large building suggestive of Asia sympathetically into a small-scale Manhattan brownstone background. The twain do meet. One indisputable delight to the eye for passerby on 70th Street is the second-story garden terrace, complete with sycamore trees, a wisteria-covered trellis, fountains and Kobashi’s terra-cotta sculpture The Village transplanted from the Asia Society’s old building on 64th Street. The terrace, designed by Landscape Architect Robert Zion, who was responsible for Paley Park and the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden, is paved with red sandstone, a gift from the government of India. (It’s too bad they won’t have a Japanese restaurant in the building. Teriyaki on the terrace might be nice.)

Inside the building is a delight – and just what the Asia Society needs. The stunning main entry-hall, a combination lobby-gallery with a high barrel-vaulted ceiling that will permanently display monumental stone sculptures, is a brilliant introduction to the building and its motif. The space is commensurate with the concept: 71,000 square feet, compared with 17,000 in the old Philip Johnson-designed headquarters at 112 East 64th Street. There will at last be adequate space for symposiums and lectures, and most notably, live performances in the Lila Acheson Wallace Auditorium, a fully-equipped mini-theater. This is the Asia Society’s 25th anniversary, and the new building symbolizes the dramatic evolution of Asian influence in the world and of Americans’ perception of that fact. A nonprofit educational organization founded by the late John D. Rockefeller 3rd to enhance American awareness of Asia, the Society will devote 1981 to a dazzling “Celebration of Asia,” consisting of 15 varied programs on Asian cultural and public affairs.

Why now celebrate Asia? Phillips Talbot, the distinguished former diplomat who at 66 is retiring this year as president of the Asia Society, points out: “It is very clear that American relations with the Asian nations are growing both in intensity and complexity. Trade across the Pacific surpasses United States trade with Europe. Not only is Asia providing us with both markets and goods ranging widely from raw materials to the highest technology. The region is also developing more rapidly than any other in the world. It’s later than you think, America.” For the first time in the 20th Century, Talbot notes, the United States enjoys good relations with Japan and China at the same time: “American concerns, involvements and interests across the Pacific are bound to continue growing.”

Robert B. Oxnam, the 38-year-old sinologist who succeeds Phillips Talbot as president of the Society, dwells on the implications of the China connection. “Between 60,000 and 70,000 Americans are expected to visit the People’s Republic this year. There are some 6,000 Chinese students in the United States. There are 600 or 700 American students in China. As many as 80 million Chinese are now studying English, an almost unheard of phenomenon three or four years ago. And at least 10,000 Americans are formally learning Chinese. The Chinese are gearing up for cultural exchange much more seriously than we are.”

Fortunately, we have to Asia Society. Economics and geopolitics aside, this relatively small organization has over the years acted as a veritable Marco Polo in the field of cultural exchange. Currently touring the United States are such rare and fine Society-sponsored attractions as “Chinese Jades from Han to Ch’ing,” encompassing 2,000 years of jade history; a collection of Chinese court attire dating from 1644, when the Manchus took over, until 1911, the end of imperial rule; a hand puppet show from Southeast China; the Royal Dancers and Musicians of the Kingdom of Bhutan; a troupe of classical North Indian musicians; and a recital of Korean court music.

A keynote of this year’s “Celebration” will be celebration; among other major events, a June 15 symposium entitled Asia In The Global Context – Toward the Year 2000, which will bring together American and Asian policy-makers, corporate leaders, scholars and others to examine future developments in a wide spectrum of fields and assess Asia’s interaction with the rest of the world in the next two decades. Perhaps the most ambitious – and appealing – event of all will be the most comprehensive festival of Indian film ever held in this country, in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art, to run from late June through October; it will the be presented at several other cities across the United States. There will be more than 60 films in all, including a retrospective of the work of the great Satyajit Ray, who will be here for the gala.

One long-awaited event will be the September opening of the Rockefeller Collection of Asian Art in the main gallery on the second floor, its setting specially created by Designer Cleo Nichols. The collection, donated to the Society by John D. Rockefeller 3rd in 1978, consists of more than 250 objects. There are most notably ceramics and bronzes from China, wood sculpture and ceramics from Japan, stone and bronze sculpture from India, as well as sculpture from Southeast Asia, Korean ceramics, and lacquer from China and Japan. A very personal assemblage reflecting the collector’s taste, it was started after Rockefeller visited Japan in 1951 with John Foster Dulles; it was conservatively valued at $15 million in 1974. As John D. Rockefeller 3rd noted in giving his collection to the Society, “There is a particularly useful role for the small, specialized museum of high quality.” It was his intention that, in time, the Society’s collection would be the Oriental equivalent of the Frick collection of European paintings and the Morgan Library of European manuscripts and prints. Even in the new building, however, it will not be possible to exhibit the entire collection at one time, though for six months or so it will be distributed through various galleries that will later be used for other works.

Phillips Talbot, the Asia Society’s retiring president, is one of the last still-serving members of a Renaissance generation that gave the United States such men as Dean Acheson and Edwin Reischauer, John Fairbank and John Kenneth Galbraith. A scholar of extraordinary accomplishment, particularly in Indian studies, a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, a wartime naval officer in the Far East, a State Department assistant secretary for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs and (from 1965 to 1969) U.S. Ambassador to Greece, he is credited with greatly extending the Asia Society’s activities and influence throughout the U.S. during his decade at the helm. (“And,” says an aide, he got the building built.”) “The conclusion of the building,” Talbot says, “completes a phase in the society’s existence. It’s time to turn to a new generation to take over.”

That task falls to Robert Oxnam. A vice president of the Asia Society and director of its Washington Center and China Council, the California-born, Williams- and Yale-educated China scholar moderated the 1979 thirty-part WCBS-TV series, Asia: Half The Human Race. He has written, among other publications, a perceptive history of the Manchu conquest of China, Ruling From Horseback. From Washington he has helped develop the Asia Society’s close informational relationship with the press and the educational establishment and fostered regional China councils throughout the U.S. A handsome, towering (six feet four inches) man who reads Chinese history “fervently” and speaks the language even in his office, Oxnam speaks of “constituencies,” old and new, that the Society will develop. He is already planning a seven-part television series to be called Passage to China that will concern not just China’s past but also its continuing impact on history. “It will be the answer to Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilization,” says the new man in the new building in the new era. “Only Clark left out half the human race.”


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