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US foundation gives transformational £20 million donation to SOAS, University of London to fund a step change in the knowledge and understanding of Southeast Asian art

Borobudur, Java, Indonesia ©Pia Conti

Borobudur, Java, Indonesia ©Pia Conti

1 November 2013

Alphawood Foundation, a Chicago private foundation, today announced a £20 million ($32 million) gift to SOAS, University of London (School of Oriental and African Studies) to advance the study and preservation of Buddhist and Hindu art in Southeast Asia. The largest ever gift in Alphawood Foundation’s history, the donation is also one of the largest recorded to UK higher education, especially in the field of arts and humanities.

As well as seeking to make a transformational impact to the study and preservation of Southeast Asian art, the gift is also of immense importance to SOAS. Representing 28% of SOAS’ 2012-13 turnover, Alphawood’s donation provides funding for over 80 scholarships, increases SOAS’ academic capacity with the addition of three fully endowed academic posts, and supports SOAS’ campus expansion in central London.

The greater part of the Alphawood donation, £15 million ($24 million), is to fund an ambitious academic programme that seeks to build on SOAS’ world-leading research expertise and existing institutional links in the Southeast Asia region.

Three new fully endowed academic posts will enhance SOAS’ acknowledged Asian arts expertise – the Hiram W. Woodward Chair in Southeast Asian art, the David L. Snellgrove Chair in Tibetan and Buddhist art, and a Senior Lectureship in Curating and Museology of Asian Art. These new posts will strengthen the Department of the History of Art and Archaeology and its Postgraduate Diploma in Asian Art within SOAS’ recently launched School of Arts. The scholarships will support students from Postgraduate Diploma to Doctorate level, with English language tuition and pre-course training also available at SOAS to enable students to get the most from their study and time in London.

Avalokitesvara, Angkor Wat, Cambodia ©Thierry Zephir

Avalokitesvara, Angkor Wat, Cambodia ©Thierry Zephir

A broad and diverse range of scholarship candidates will be sought from across the region – especially Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei and Laos – from heritage organisations, museums, universities and government departments. 

The funding will also enable SOAS to build networks with like-minded organisations in the region, to develop and encourage regional expertise, provide study opportunities at a variety of levels at SOAS and establish conferences, symposia and master-classes in both London and Southeast Asia to foster long term sustainability in the field.

Alphawood founder Fred Eychaner pursued his deep interest in Southeast Asian art at SOAS in 2009 when he participated in the School’s renowned Postgraduate Diploma in Asian Art. Commenting on the donation to SOAS and the impetus for the academic programme, Fred

Eychaner said:
"Alphawood Foundation seeks to stimulate and expand the study of Southeast Asian art at all levels – from an educated and interested public to museum professionals to new PhD-level scholars. We chose to advance this goal by making our largest gift to date to SOAS because this School creates a very special learning and research environment where West meets East. It builds bridges to the universities, museums and galleries of Asia, including in areas where the arts were held back by war and politics in the 20th century.

"While SOAS is firmly rooted in London, it has always been outward looking and seeks to make an impact in the regions it studies. We intend our gift to have its greatest effect in Southeast Asia – and over time, SOAS graduates from the programmes we create today will take their scholarship and talents to the museums, universities, galleries and other institutions of that region. This is how our gift will be transformative."

Professor Paul Webley, Director of SOAS, said: "We are thrilled to be working with Alphawood on this visionary and ambitious project. SOAS has been studying and interpreting the development, languages, arts and cultures of Asia for nearly 100 years and this project will draw on that knowledge as well as further reinforce our position as a world-leading centre for the study and interpretation of Southeast Asian art. We aim to attract the highest-calibre candidates for the new academic posts and will reach out to our contacts across the region to attract students, curators and scholars, enabling a new generation of Southeast Asian art experts."

Ravana shakes Shiva's mountain, Banteay Srei, Cambodia ©Peter Sharrock

Ravana shakes Shiva's mountain, Banteay Srei, Cambodia ©Peter Sharrock

Commenting on the academic programme to increase knowledge and understanding in Southeast Asian art, Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum said: "Southeast Asia has an immense artistic heritage including the world-renowned monuments of Angkor Wat, Borobudur and Bagan. These rank among the greatest sacred monuments of Asia and were built on an unprecedented scale and with unmatched perfection of workmanship. Despite this, the treasures are still relatively little known and the academic field remains relatively undeveloped. This is indeed a visionary philanthropic donation which will have a profound and long-lasting effect on the understanding and study of Southeast Asian art.

"SOAS has long fulfilled a distinguished role in the study of Asian cultures and I can’t think of a more fitting institution to develop this field further. The British Museum has only recently appointed a Curator of Southeast Asian art, herself a SOAS graduate. We look forward to further developing our already strong links with SOAS through this exciting initiative."

The Alphawood gift includes £5 million in support of SOAS’ development of the north wing of Senate House, the landmark 1930s University of London building in Bloomsbury that is adjacent to the SOAS campus. Moving into Senate House increases SOAS’ vibrant presence in London’s primary district of learning and heritage. The development will provide state of the art learning and teaching facilities fit for SOAS’ role as a world-class institution with features including a glass-roofed central atrium and a dynamic student social and learning hub.

Dr Tim Miller, Chairman of the SOAS Governing Body, commented: "This exciting project will be transformational for the whole SOAS community, enhancing our academic and scholarship provision and our central London campus. As we head towards SOAS’ centenary in 2016/17 this is a landmark moment in our history and a remarkable vote of confidence in our future. We are immensely grateful to Fred Eychaner and the Alphawood Foundation for their generosity and belief in our institutional mission."

Satellite sanctuary Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia ©Peter Sharrock

Satellite sanctuary Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia ©Peter Sharrock