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Vishakha Desai: Knowing a Country's Culture Helps One Understand the Causes of Tension

Asia Society's president and CEO Vishakha Desai tells Forbes India about how the New York headquartered organisation has transformed into a transnational institution


Vishakha Desai
Education:
BA in Political Science from Bombay University; MA and PhD in Asian Art History from the University of Michigan
Last Position: President and CEO of Asia Society
Career: Before joining Asia Society in 1990, was a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She has also taught at the University of Massachusetts, Boston University, Columbia University and Williams College
Interests: Art History


Q. What are the big changes that you’ve seen in the Asia Society in your 22 years here?
The society’s transition from a purely American to a transnational institution is a big shift. Also, education is now a big part of our mission as it is critical for better cross-cultural understanding. We work a lot to promote mutual understanding and partnership among Asian countries. For instance, though China has replaced the United States as India’s biggest trading partner, this has not been followed by a better cultural understanding between the two. To create a network that helps this is one of our major objectives. All recent polls show that there is much insecurity and wariness about China around the world. Most of our new initiatives are about improving understanding among Asian societies. As the millennial civilisations take over from the Euro-centric ones, this understanding is important. The society looks at this intersection of culture, current affairs and commerce.

Q. What role does cultural understanding play in the rapidly changing geopolitical equations today?
The world order is changing in a seismic way. It is obvious that the United States can no longer be the only superpower. Because of our interest in culture and art, we do a lot of offl ine work with various countries that are not in the mainstream. We can often leverage our access to improve understanding and communication. For instance, we had created a Myanmar paper and task force much before the elections there. This was well received by the US government too.

We’ve done a lot of cultural programmes in Iran and they have a lot of respect for us. Getting to know the culture obviously helps in understanding the causes of tension.

Q. Is raising funds difficult because of tough times?
We did go through a rough patch in 2009 because of falling endowments. But things are picking up again.

We are sharing resources among our offices. Our new building in Hong Kong was built on the public-private partnership model. We are supported by foundations, companies and individuals. A lot of our funding is raised locally.

Q. What is your next course of action?
I came to the US at the height of the Vietnam War as an exchange student.

Though my degree was in Art History, I had a passion for better cultural understanding between Asia and America and have been trying to make a difference since then. I will join the Guggenheim Foundation as a senior advisor for global policy and programmes.

But I hope that the next phase in life is more reflective; I aim to find time to think and write. I am in conversation with a university to start a course in Asia studies. I am also half way through my book, titled Daughter of India.