Dr Tai-Heng Cheng (left) and Cole Harrell (Photo credit: Ian Kacungira)

An international lawyer, Singaporean art collector and philanthropist, Dr Tai-Heng Cheng recently made the news for the Cheng-Harrell Graduate Internship – five-year-long support to five graduate interns at The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art in Washington D.C. We speak to Dr Cheng to find out more about his philanthropy efforts. 

What does art mean to you? 

For me, art offers respite and insight.

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What spurred you to offer a graduate internship? 

The Black Lives Matter movement, and the rise of Asian hate crimes in the United States, provoked in me a period of self-examination. I felt a desire to help rectify inequities. I started with the skills I have. I took on pro bono, together with a team of Sidley Austin LLP attorneys from our Singapore, New York, California, and Washington, DC offices, representing a US journalist who was shot and blinded by the police while covering the BLM protests. We are bringing a civil rights claim. Lawsuits can be an effective way to rectify injustice and precipitate change.

Shortly after I took on the case, however, I realised broad and lasting cultural changes usually require more than lawsuits alone. My husband, Cole Harrell, and I discussed what more we could do to promote equity and inclusion. We turned to philanthropy.

How significant would the internship be for the younger generation, the state and the museum? 

I approach philanthropy like an impact investor. You are correct that I anticipate short and long term returns for different groups.

For young art world superstars who cannot afford to work for free at a leading museum, I hope that offering a living wage will give them an opportunity to supercharge their careers by participating in the rich programming and networks at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art.

For the National Museum, I hope this paid internship will diversify their talent pool. In the United States, minorities tend to be less affluent. By allowing them to take positions without having to worry about how to pay for rent or meals, I anticipate that each cohort will include interns from varied backgrounds. They will bring different perspectives in the way they see the art and how they connect with audiences. I am confident this will enrich the museum’s programs.

For the art world, and maybe broader communities, in time these interns will form a diverse pool for senior museum positions. From those positions of influence, they can drive wider cultural changes in society.

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Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Asian Art

What does the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art mean to you? 

We are in an ironic moment in global affairs. Through international travel, the internet and social media, people in Asia and the United States are more connected with each other than ever before. Yet somehow the level of misunderstanding and apparent acrimony among some government officials from different countries seems to have escalated. Something must be done.

The National Museum of Asian Art, with its focus on Asian culture, its physical location in the capitol of the United States, and its global reach, can play an important role as a bridge among cultures. Its collection can incite curiosity about Asian art; its exhibitions can deepen understanding of Asian culture; its programs can increase empathy among everyone for each other.

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Who’s your favourite Asian artist or what is your favourite Asian artwork? 

Among a small group of Shang and Zhou dynasty bronzes at home, I am particularly fond of a “Gui,” which is essentially a food bowl with a ring base and handles. After thousands of years, it has a warm patina but its casting is still sharp. Its iconography is still discernible in Chinese cultural symbols today. I purchased it to commemorate a $700 mm arbitration win, so it’s in my office as a daily reminder to keep winning for my clients.

What are your hopes for Asian art in the United States? 

I hope that in the United States, some of the contemporary art that gets made reflects the experiences of the Asian diaspora in the United States. Hopefully this helps Asians to feel seen in the United States, and for all Americans to relate to the Asian experience.