Shaping the Future of Creativity

by Portfolio Magazine
10 Jul 2024

The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative is a global force nurturing the next generation of creative geniuses. Here is how the programme is preserving artistic heritage and fostering cross-cultural excellence, one mentorship at a time.

From parent to child. Coach to athlete. Master to apprentice. In the rich tapestry of human tradition, the transmission of knowledge and skill has a profound significance, woven into the fabric of our collective history and cultural heritage. Across generations and civilizations, passing down know-how has been vital in nurturing progress, fostering innovation, and preserving wisdom. 

In an increasingly interconnected world, the transmission of expertise serves as a bridge that spans continents and cultures. Through the exchange of ideas, practices and perspectives, individuals forge connections that transcend borders. The collaborative spirit across communities and societies ultimately encourages understanding and empathy.  

Recognizing this vital need, Swiss watch manufacture Rolex established the Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative in 2002, a pioneering programme that has since become a global creative force.  

The Initiative’s premise is simple yet has far-reaching consequences: Pair acclaimed masters in various artistic disciplines with emerging talents in corresponding fields, and allow the duo to develop a mentor-protégé relationship. Match an award-winning filmmaker with a rising auteur, for example. Over a two-year period, these mentors and protégés embark on a journey of creative exchange, sharing their insights, techniques, and passions in a one-on-one collaboration.  

What sets the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative apart is its resolute devotion to artistic excellence and its global reach. Since inception, the program has spanned disciplines as diverse as architecture, dance, film, literature, music, theatre, and visual arts, with an open category allowing for interdisciplinary exploration. This breadth ensures that the Initiative remains a dynamic, ever-evolving platform, reflecting the shifting landscape of contemporary culture. 

The selection process is as rigorous as it is inclusive. Every two years, an independent Advisory Board, comprising distinguished artists and arts practitioners, recommends potential mentors to Rolex. The brand then works closely with the chosen masters to establish the desired profile for their protégé. Nominating panels, each dedicated to a specific discipline, identify suitable emerging artists who are invited to apply. The mentors ultimately select their protégés from a shortlist of finalists, ensuring a tailored mentorship experience.

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Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative cycle 2010-2011 Mentor Zhang Yimou and Protégé Annemarie Jacir

“There's an ancient Chinese saying about the importance of experiencing life for yourself: ‘Walk 10,000 miles and read 10,000 books.’ It means [to] travel a lot, see a lot and read a lot to gain knowledge. This is what the Rolex program offers,” remarked Zhang Yimou, the renowned Chinese director who mentored Annemarie Jacir in film from 2010–2011.

Rolex’s ties with the filmmaking industry stretches back decades. Over the years, countless leading men and women have worn its watches on the silver screen, with many of the films being Oscar-winning features. Today, the brand has evolved beyond being a passive player, actively championing the artistry and technical prowess inherent in cinema. 

With an unwavering dedication to upholding and advancing the cinematic arts, Rolex stands as a staunch supporter of both established luminaries and budding talents. The brand counts figures like Martin Scorsese and James Cameron as its Testimonees, and has been a proud sponsor of the Oscars since 2017. Not only does it host the event’s Greenroom, it also supports the Governors Awards, which recognizes lifetime achievement in film. Rolex is also a Founding Supporter of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. 

In the field of visual arts, the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative serves as a steadfast patron of creativity and innovation, cultivating collaborations with visionary artists and institutions worldwide. Acclaimed mentors like Anish Kapoor, David Hockney, Joan Jonas, and Olafur Eliasson have mentored promising protégés, sharing their learnings, approaches, and creative processes.

Thao Nguyen Phan, the 2016-2017 protégé in visual arts to pioneering artist Joan Jonas, shared her experience: “It's creating the tradition of having someone more experienced, wiser, willing to share their whole experience with an emerging or a younger artist. I feel like that's a tradition that we should keep,” she said.  

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Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative cycle 2012-2013 Mentor Kazuyo Sejima and Protégé Yang Zhao

The realm of architecture is a field that is as much a canvas for artistic expression as it is a laboratory of scientific precision. Visionary architects, much like skilled watchmakers, harmonize aesthetics with functionality in their creations. Just as the intricate mechanisms of a Rolex Oyster timepiece adhere to stringent standards, buildings convey a distinct message through their design and utility.

For over six decades, Rolex has commissioned esteemed architects to craft exceptional structures that stand as testaments to human ingenuity. From the Lititz Watch Technicum in

Pennsylvania, USA (designed by Michael Graves) to the Rolex Learning Center for EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland (designed by SANAA duo Ryue Nishizawa and Kazuyo Sejima), these architectural marvels epitomise the brand’s pursuit of excellence and innovation.

Kazuyo Sejima, who mentored Yang Zhao in architecture from 2012-2013, offered insights into the mentorship dynamic: “Yang and I are making a type of mentor-protégé relationship by creating something together. But the project itself belongs to Yang. It is not my work... Yang asks [for] my opinion, but he must decide for himself.”


Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative cycle 2016-2017 Mentor Joan Jonas and Protégé Thao Nguyen Phan

The impact of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative is far-reaching and profound. To date, 63 mentors have chosen 63 protégés from 41 countries, fostering an extraordinary global creative community that transcends borders and cultures. Many protégés have gone on to achieve remarkable milestones, from being appointed as artistic directors of major companies to exhibiting at prestigious events like the Venice Biennale and receiving accolades, such as the US Poet Laureate.

Beyond individual achievements, the Initiative has evolved into a respected platform for promoting artistic excellence, cross-cultural dialogue, and the preservation of creative heritage worldwide. Protégés often continue to collaborate with their mentors long after the official mentorship period, forming lasting bonds and creative partnerships. Additionally, inspired by their own experiences, many former protégés have taken it upon themselves to mentor younger artists, perpetuating the cycle of knowledge transmission.

The transmission of knowledge and skill is the catalyst for innovation and progress, driving forward the wheels of human advancement. From the scientific breakthroughs of pioneering researchers to the artistic masterpieces of visionary creators, each new discovery and creation builds upon the foundation laid by those who came before, pushing the boundaries of what is possible and unlocking new realms of potential.

As Rolex continues to nurture the next generation of great artists, its mentoring programme stands as a beacon of excellence, ensuring that the timeless wisdom and techniques of the masters are passed down to those who will shape the artistic landscape of tomorrow.