Wall Street Journal NOVEMBER 16, 2011 - by Marshall Heyman


The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative is serious stuff, as exemplified by a celebration held for the program Monday at Lincoln Center.

First of all: This was at Lincoln Center, a place esteemed for high culture.

Second of all: See the use of the word "protégé."

Third: The individuals involved come from the land of high art. This year's batch of mentors included the Chinese filmmaker Zhang Zhimou, the postmodernist American choreographer Trisha Brown, the kooky theater and opera director Peter Sellars, and the experimental British composer Brian Eno. Would it really hurt to throw Chuck Lorre or Michael Bay in the mix? For a little pyrotechnic humor?

Mainstream is not the direction Rolex clearly hopes to go. Which is OK. Mainstream entertainment is probably doing just fine, although the protégé who hopes to create the next Two Broke Girls could use a mentor, too.

Still, no matter how you slice it, even if you invite incomparable literary talent like Michael Ondaatje, Francine du Plessix Gray and Margaret Atwood; incomparable theatrical talent like Julie Taymor (OK, she's not always incomparable) and Sir Peter Hall; and their incomparable colleagues from other disciplines, you are still left with an evening that smacks of a long commercial for a fancy watch brand.

With the help of an advisory board that includes several luminaries from various disciplines, mentors in six categories (visual arts, dance, theater, film, music and literature) are chosen to pair with protégés.

"You're invited for the most blissful weekend in gorgeous places around the world, and you meet people like A.S. Byatt and Nick Serota and Pierre Alix and you just sit and laugh a lot," explained the actress Fiona Shaw, who serves on the advisory board and in her real life mixes high culture (she directs operas) and semi-low (most of the Harry Potter movies.) Ms. Shaw wouldn't say if a new Rolex watch was part of the equation, though she was wearing one.

Each participant is given an honorarium and a year to work together. "You just open your heart and ask them questions and they ask you questions and they experience your work and you experience theirs," said Ms. Taymor.

The relationships tend to last longer. "We're in weekly contact, and the year has already ended," said the Australian musician Ben Frost, who is now based in Iceland, of Mr. Eno. "That's never going to stop."

"We've exchanged a hundred and ninety-one emails and sixty-one text messages," explained Mr. Eno. "Both of you plant some seeds in one another's consciousness. The time has been very useful to me and I hope very useful to him."

Through various speeches, videos and the like - comprising a presentation that, albeit long, shall we say, moved like clockwork - there was quite a lot of emphasis on this idea of the passage of time. Would you expect anything less from a smooth, Swiss watchmaker?

"We give our artists the gift of time," said Bree Jepson, who runs the initiative.

"Artists need time," said the Mumbai-born sculptor Anish Kapoor. "The studio is a place of time." When it came to working with his protégé, the South African artist Nicholas Hlobo, "I felt like I could give him time."

Hans Magnus Enzensberger, the German poet, told his protégé, the African-American writer Tracy K. Smith, when she started working on her first memoir, "There's no need to rush. Books like this can take years."

"Just have a wonderful time," said the opera singer Jessye Norman, upon introducing the next round of mentors, who include Wiliam Kentridge, Gilberto Gil and Ms. Atwood. She then sang Climb Ev'ry Mountain a capella, from that big 'ol mainstream musical, The Sound Of Music.

Over the years, Ms. Atwood said that she's had mentors, but no longer. "I'm very old," she said. "You always have unofficial people whether you know it or not. Various fairy godmothers."

The advice she's continued to uphold includes: Always show your manuscripts to people who are not in the business and you can't avoid the fact that "you're a target and people will shoot at you."

In 1961, a mentor told her to sign her writing "Margaret" instead of "Peggy." "He said, "If you sign your writing "Peggy," no one will take it seriously. We don't know how it would have gone the other way."