S'porean lawyer funds graduate internships for Asian art at Smithsonian museum

The Cheng-Harrell Graduate Internships are named in honour of Dr Tai-Heng Cheng (left) and his husband, art gallerist Cole Harrell. PHOTO: CHRISTINE BUTLER

SINGAPORE - A Singaporean lawyer will be funding the first paid graduate internship at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Asian Art in Washington, DC.

Dr Tai-Heng Cheng, 45, has voiced his concern about the growing hostility towards Asians in the United States, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"The National Museum of Asian Art stands against the rising violence and hatred directed at Asians and Asian Americans in the United States," he tells The Straits Times. "I share the museum's belief that Asian arts and culture has the power to further civic discourse and foster empathy and understanding among the public."

The Smithsonian Institution is a group of museums and education and research centres. It is the largest of its kind in the world.

Dr Cheng's gift will help support five paid graduate interns annually over five years. He declines to say how large the donation is.

Named in honour of him and his American husband, art gallerist Cole Harrell, 32, the Cheng-Harrell Graduate Interns will work on museum exhibitions, research, symposia and public programmes - all while receiving a living wage. The first cohort is expected to start in autumn this year.

Dr Cheng, the global co-head of arbitration and trade at law firm Sidley Austin in New York as well as co-managing partner of its Singapore office, often travels between the US and Singapore for work.

He says: "There is a perception of increasing tension between the US and Chinese governments. Some elected officials have used inflammatory rhetoric, such as mislabelling Covid-19 as the China Virus or Kong Flu. Unfortunately, this irresponsible conduct increases misunderstanding and misperceptions between Americans and Asians."

Anti-Asian violence has surged in the US since the Covid-19 outbreak. There were 9,081 incidents of racial attacks against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) recorded between March 2020 and June last year, according to a report published by the non-profit group Stop AAPI Hate.

Dr Cheng says that as part of the selection process for the internship, preference will be given to applicants who are fluent in an Asian language and/or have demonstrated academic interest in Asian arts and cultures.

The museum, he says, is "a natural fit". If the programme proves successful after a few years, he and his husband are open to discussing further support, including potentially endowing it.

Dr Cheng, a former President's Scholar who studied at Oxford University in Britain, hopes more diverse and talented young curators will benefit from the programme. He believes ethnic minorities in the US tend to be less affluent and could find it impossible to work for free for a year.

"The cost of living in Washington, DC is high compared with Singapore, so it's important to pay graduate interns properly," he says.

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