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A heart for art

For a little over fifty years, The Asia Society -- on 70th Street in New York City -- has been dedicated to strengthening relationships and deepening understanding among the peoples of Asia and the United States. As President and CEO of the Society, Vishakha N Desai sets the directions for that important mission.

A scholar of classical Indian art who has also served as a professor at a number of well known American universities, including Columbia, Desai not only directs art outreach at the Society but also directs its diverse set of programs -- in the areas of policy, business, arts, culture and education -- throughout a network of centers in the United States and Asia.

It is thanks to Desai -- who was appointed President in 2004, the first Asian American in that position -- that the Society's fiftieth anniversary celebrations last year attracted tremendous attention in America and outside,
in her words
'It will no longer be possible for America to see itself as the sole superpower. We want to think about America in this notion of the Asian century and it is important that we do work in the region and as well as in America.'
marked as they were by a series of high-profile activities and vast fundraising initiatives.

Desai also deserves credit for the increase in the Society's activities, particularly in Asia. It has a new India Centre in Mumbai, and plans multi-million-dollar facilities in Hong Kong and Houston.

Before joining the Society in 1990, she was a curator at The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Following a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Mumbai, she went on to collect a master's and PhD in Asian Art History from the University of Michigan.

Besides managing a $40 million renovation of the Asia Society's New York City headquarters, Desai, as Museum Director, built an international reputation for introducing contemporary Asian art to a broad audience. Apart from teaching at the University of Massachusetts, Boston University, Columbia University, and Williams College, she has also served on the boards of The Brookings Institution, and the New York City Advisory Commission for Cultural Affairs.

If the average person in America now thinks beyond M F Husain when references to Indian art crop up, Vishakha Desai's influence can be credited with that development.

By helping open eyes to the many realms of artistic possibility in Asia, she has contributed to society in much the same manner as the artists themselves have. 'Just say Asia and an average person can only think of ancient paintings,' she says. 'We have been trying to change that mindset.'