[COMMUNITY] Vishakha N. Desai - 1st Woman/AA to Head Asia Society
- Asia Society Appoints Art Historian as President
By DINITIA SMITH
The Asia Society, founded in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller III to
foster understanding of Asia, has a new president, Vishakha N.
Desai, the first woman and the first Asian-American to head the
Ms. Desai, who was trained as a scholar of classical Indian art and
was a performer and teacher of South Indian dance, has been senior
vice president and director of the society's museum and cultural
programs since 1990. She succeeds Nicholas Platt, a former
ambassador to Pakistan, who is to retire on July 1, after 12 years
The appointment is to be announced today by Richard C. Holbrooke,
chairman of the society's board. "It was a gender-blind and ethnic-
blind process," he said of the search for a new director. "But she
came in and just convinced the selection panel she was most fit to
do this." Ms. Desai won the job over candidates who included an
American ambassador and a university president, Mr. Holbrooke said.
She is married to Robert B. Oxnam, a China scholar, who was the Asia
Society's president from 1981 to 1992.
Ms. Desai's appointment continues this organization's evolution from
an elite club of Foreign Service hands devotees of Asian culture,
most of them white and male to a center with a broad cultural and
educational purpose covering more than 30 countries, with offices in
Washington, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Manila,
Shanghai and Melbourne, Australia.
In addition to housing a gemlike collection of ancient Asian art,
built on Rockefeller's collection of Chinese ceramics, Indian
bronzes and Southeast Asian sculptures, the society offers
exhibitions, film festivals, conferences and educational resources
for K-12 students. It also maintains Web sites with information on
Asian politics, business, finance, technology and cuisine.
"When this organization was founded almost 50 years ago," Ms. Desai
said in an interview yesterday, Asia seemed "far away and exotic,
and very much outside our lives, except for the wars we fought, in
Korea and Vietnam, and with the Japanese."
"Asian-Americans," she added, "are now among the fastest growing
ethnic minorities in the country," and one of her missions is to
bring more of them into the society.
Born in Ahmedabad, in the Indian state of Gujarat, Ms. Desai, 54, is
the daughter of Nirubhai Desai, a newspaper editor. Both her father,
a Brahmin, and her mother, Nirmala, from a wealthy merchant caste,
were active in the Indian independence movement.
As a high school senior Ms. Desai was an exchange student in
California. She received her bachelor's degree from Bombay
University and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, where her
thesis was on the relationship between the text and illustrations in
the 17th-century Indian love poem "The Connoisseur's Delight."
Before coming to the Asia Society she was curator of Indian,
Southeast Asian and Islamic Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in
Ms. Desai and Mr. Oxnam live in an apartment on Central Park West
filled with bright splashes of contemporary Asian art.
"Our mission has never been more important and more relevant," she
said of the Asia Society. "In the 21st century, the rising powers
are in Asia India and China. Surveys show that the majority of our
kids cannot identify the ocean separating the West Coast from Asia."
"We must be more competitive," she added. "And we want to use
culture to bring people to want to know what the political issues