Rolex's Art Sponsorship Program

On a drizzly December evening, Martin Scorsese joined his Argentine protegee for a talk about the challenges of filmmaking.

"You have to be a little crazy, but in a good way," said the 67-year-old director, wearing thick frames and a gray flannel suit on stage at London's British Film Institute. "Anything and everything goes wrong in every minute."

"It's amazing any film gets finished—only to be panned right away," he said, drawing laughs from the audience, and from 36-year-old protegee Celina Murga.

Scorsese spent a year coaching Murga as part of a Rolex Group-sponsored program that has six budding artists mentored by masters in their field. The biennial program, started in 2002, costs the Swiss watchmaker about $700,000 every time—$50,000 each to the six mentors and proteges, and about $100,000 in auxiliary costs incurred by the creative upstarts.

The Rolex patronage continues even as watch exports from Switzerland dropped 26 percent in value terms in the first 10 months of 2009, according to the Swiss Watchmakers' Federation. Rolex is "suffering from the current economic crisis," Managing Director Bruno Meier told French daily L'Agefi in October, though he said he expected a pickup in 2010.

Rolex hosted a dinner for 400 people at the Royal Opera House in London on Dec. 6. Guests sat at mirrored tables bearing trays of floating roses and dined on beef fillet. The six pairs of mentors and proteges took turns on the podium recounting their experiences.

Brian EnoThe 2010-2011 batch of mentors (many of them present) were announced as filmmaker Zhang Yimou, choreographer Trisha Brown, record producer Brian Eno, writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger, artist Anish Kapoor and stage director Peter Sellars.

The only hiccup came when the Argentine actor Nahuel Perez Biscayart (mentored by Kate Valk) refused to read remarks rolling across the prompters that he said Rolex had scripted. He spoke off the cuff. So did dance mentor Jiri Kylian. Mentors and proteges are asked to provide a script in advance so that timings can be set for the evening though they are free to say what they wish, said Rolex's head of philanthropy, U.S.-born Rebecca Irvin.

In her year shadowing Scorsese, Murga watched him shoot a range of work: "Shutter Island," set for February release, about a female fugitive from a hospital for the criminally insane; the pilot episode of the TV series "Boardwalk Empire"; and documentaries on director Elia Kazan and George Harrison of the Beatles.

Scorsese's ChoiceScorsese said he chose Murga because of her films and "the nature of her demeanor," which suggested that she would "not talk too much or ask too many questions, and really absorb."

Murga, a short-haired brunette in a miniskirt and a kimono- like tunic, said she was "afraid of meeting the legend," and "happy because I know the man in some way."

The program is steered by Irvin, "a formidable woman who won't take no for an answer," according to filmmaker Stephen Frears, an ex-mentor who introduced Scorsese at the talk.

The mentoring "creates an awful lot of goodwill for the company," said Irvin in an interview, wearing a gold Rolex with a diamond-studded dial and a black trouser suit. "It allows us to have relationships with people who wouldn't necessarily be interested in the brand, or who wouldn't agree to be brand ambassadors." (These "ambassadors" include tenor Placido Domingo and dancer Sylvie Guillem.)

Authors and SingersOther current "mentors" include author Wole Soyinka, singer-songwriter Youssou N'Dour, and artist Rebecca Horn. Past ones include author Toni Morrison, stage director Robert Wilson and singer Jessye Norman.

The very first batch was lured by a panel of advisers that included Norman, Soyinka and architect Frank Gehry. A similar panel of 10 to 15 artists meets every two years and filters out someone who, say, "doesn't really care about young people," or who "can't really communicate what she's doing," said Irvin. Partnerships have played out in myriad ways. Director Frears, who had no films in the works when he became a mentor, chose to follow his Peruvian protege Josue Mendez on a shoot.

Author Mario Vargas Llosa told his protege, Antonio Garcia Angel, that he wanted a chapter a week; daunted at first, the young man finished a novel in his year that he then published. After his Rolex cycle, Tibetan-Chinese dancer Sang Jijia joined mentor William Forsythe's company.

Scorsese, too, seems to be making a difference. "The script you're working on had a murder in it," he told Murga at the BFI talk. "It still has—but it's different."

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