Brazilian superstar Gilberto Gil is perched on a high stool not three metres in front of me, cradling his acoustic guitar as his creamy voice swoops high into the whooping chirping Tropicalia rhythms. As the song ends, he turns smiling to the seated figures behind him, inviting them to join him in the next. After a moment of indecision, one voice takes the lead, its immense power reined back to a whisper: the great operatic diva Jessye Norman is humming “The Girl from Ipanema”, the 1960s bossa nova chart-topper. A grinning Gil instantly picks up the guitar part, joined by the bass-baritone croon of José van Dam. The person nodding his bearded head in the row in front of me is the British director Sir Peter Hall; across the aisle, that’s Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka next to sculptor Anish Kapoor.
Was this impossible scene the demented fantasy of an arts editor who has finally lost her wits? No, it was just one of the events in the recent Rolex arts weekend in New York, held to mark the culmination of the fifth cycle of the biennial Mentorship and Protégé programme sponsored by the company. More impossible events were to come: the silence of the grandiose reading room of the New York Public Library was about to be assaulted by the amplified sound from five guitars and brass ensemble that music mentor Brian Eno described as “visceral, sculptural” and one audience member described as “sadistic”. (I had seen André Brink, in the audience, reaching for earplugs.) The next day, the piece’s creator, Eno’s protégé Ben Frost, seemed resigned to the epithet: the piece was, he admitted, about the limits of endurance.
The Rolex scheme appoints senior artists in six genres – music, literature, visual arts, theatre, dance and film – and matches them with a younger practitioner, often from far across continents and cultural divides. It allows the pair time to work together in any way they choose: there is no requirement for an end-product or performance, no prescribed schedule or methodology, and – importantly – no sense in which these artists become brand ambassadors.
The six from the 2010-11 cycle were as disparate as could be: the great German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger talked about what he had learnt from the world of young black New Yorker Tracy K Smith; the Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir spoke of the challenges and rewards of her time under the eye of Chinese director Zhang Yimou, without a word of a common language. Dance is the form in which a mentorship system is perhaps most firmly established, and the young Australian Lee Serle had joined the US-based company of his mentor Trisha Brown, who looked on gravely as his newest piece was performed in the Public Library’s entrance space. Johannesburg artist Nicholas Hlobo, protégé of Anish Kapoor, is already sought-after by collectors; Kapoor spoke of how he could offer advice on managing a success that can be “a killer of souls”.
Clearly, inspiration travels in both directions. “I was getting tired of myself,” said the brilliant and controversial director Peter Sellars. “Meeting this lady” – he gestures affectionately towards his protégé, Maya Zbib from Beirut – “has been so important to me.” Zbib took Sellars on an eye-opening trip to Lebanon, to experience work by her six-person collective Zoukak, which makes politically fuelled theatre in refugee camps, in private homes and other spaces. He took her to watch him work in the Democratic Republic of Congo (“I wanted to make Beirut seem peaceful!”) and in Chicago, where he was staging Handel’s opera Hercules. In this version, the conquering hero is transformed into a US general returning from Iraq, to the battleground of a home in which he can’t speak of what he has seen.
Sellars had organised hundreds of American veterans – many of them living in Chicago’s homeless shelters – to attend the production and take part in discussions; for Zbib, coming from a country so deeply scarred by war, to hear the traumas of the US vets was, she says, extremely powerful. The two share a passionate belief about theatre, and about culture itself, which is summed up by the titles of the courses Sellars teaches at UCLA: “Art as Social Action” and “Art as Moral Action”.
Working in tandem
There are many different models of corporate sponsorship of the arts – from underwriting an exhibition to establishing a prize, from training schemes to collecting work for office walls, from commissioning new work to paying for the conservation of ancient treasures.
When Rolex decided in 2001 to extend its philanthropic cultural programme, Rebecca Irvin, head of the Rolex Arts Initiative, set out to create something original at the time, a mentoring programme primarily for the benefit of the younger artists involved. The brief is very loose, and the pairs find their own ways of working together. No specific output is required during the mentoring year but Rolex does provide funding for the protégés to continue their work after the programme is over.
Over the past decade, the Mentor and Protégé Initiative has also yielded some unexpected results, particularly in creating a broad informal network of professional, personal and artistic contacts through keeping in touch with past participants, and via the many panels of advisers and selectors around the world.
So how does Rolex persuade such figures as Martin Scorsese (film), Youssou N’Dour (music), Toni Morrison (literature), David Hockney (visual arts) and many others to join the programme? Almost always, they say, because they were asked by one of their peers, either a former mentor or a member of one of the selection panels. As theatre director Peter Sellars put it recently: “You don’t say no to Bill Forsythe!” [dance mentor in 2002-2003]
This is probably the magic ingredient in the growing status of this initiative. Inevitably, there is often some initial suspicion of “branded” schemes such as these, but other senior arts figures are the ones who can testify reassuringly to the degree of freedom and lack of commercial pressures imposed by the sponsors.
For the next cycle, the mentors will be Margaret Atwood (literature), Gilberto Gil (music), William Kentridge (visual arts), Walter Murch (film), Patrice Chéreau (theatre) and Lin Hwai-min (dance).