On April 4th, the Vilcek Foundation celebrated the winners of the 2019 Vilcek Foundation Prizes, which this year honored immigrant achievements in culinary arts, biomedical science, and art scholarship. In an eloquent speech to open the evening, cofounder Jan Vilcek ruminated on how the context of the awards has changed since they were first bestowed in 2006. “[When] we adopted our main mission—to celebrate and honor outstanding foreign-born scientists and artists, thereby raising public awareness of the contribution of immigrants to this country—we did not have a political goal in mind,” he said. “We could not have anticipated how timely and politically relevant our work would become.”
While much has changed in the intervening years, other things have stayed the same: Immigrants from all over the world continue to achieve remarkable things in the U.S. This year’s nine prizewinners hail from four continents and eight countries. They work in kitchens, newsrooms, science labs, and museums, and have each found their own unique way to enrich their adopted homeland.
To recognize the diversity of these efforts, the Vilcek Foundation introduced the Vilcek Prize for Excellence, a new award that highlights accomplished immigrants who don’t fit easily into existing prize categories. The inaugural recipient was Carmen C. Bambach, the Chilean-born curator of Renaissance drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She organized last fall’s blockbuster exhibition, Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer, and will soon publish a four-volume study of Leonardo da Vinci.
In an introduction for Carmen, Vilcek Foundation cofounder Marica Vilcek, who worked at the Met for 32 years, commended those who labor behind the scenes at museums. “An important exhibition can take many years to prepare and not only demands deep knowledge of the artists and cultures, but also requires planning, securing loans, writing a catalogue, and installing the work,” she said. “The job of a curator is akin to that of a conductor of an orchestra, though unlike conductors, curators are rarely given full credit for their creations.”
The night’s festivities also recognized another group of individuals whose hard work often goes unheralded, even by those who enjoy their creations: chefs and food writers. Padma Lakshmi, the Indian-born host and executive producer of Top Chef and author of four books, was on hand to introduce the Vilcek Prizewinner in Culinary Arts, Marcus Samuelsson, as well as Creative Promise Prizewinners Tejal Rao, Fabián von Hauske Valtierra, and Nite Yun. “The four outstanding food professionals we honor tonight are great examples of what happens when an immigrant is allowed to follow [the American] Dream through exercising their passion,” Padma said. “I’m honored to stand here before you tonight and present the Vilcek awards to four people that I admire greatly, not only for their achievements, but for their sheer gumption and force of will.”
Cheering them on was Varin Keokitvon, who received the Creative Promise Prize in Culinary Arts when it was last awarded in 2010. But he was far from the only prizewinner to attend: The audience included a mélange of past honorees, including theater director Sarah Benson, author Dinaw Mengestu, and biomedical researchers Heran Darwin, Andreas Hochwagen, Yibin Kang, Dan Littman, Stavros Lomvardas, Joan Massagué, Ruslan Medzhitov, and Alexander Rudensky. Among them was also Titia de Lange, 2011 Vilcek Prizewinner and foundation board member, who offered an introduction to this year’s Vilcek Prizewinner in Biomedical Science, Angelika Amon, and to Creative Promise Prizewinners Amit Choudhary, Jeanne T. Paz, and Mikhail G. Shapiro.
In a touching acceptance speech, Angelika acknowledged not only those who have helped her along the way, but also the contributions of all those who have come to the U.S. searching for a better life. “Let us really not forget the people who leave their homeland in search for a safer, better environment for raising their children or for better opportunities for themselves, or in my case, to sort of learn science the American way,” she said. “It’s really immigrants who’ve made this country what it is today.”
You can see more photos of the evening’s festivities on the Vilcek Foundation Facebook page and read more about our prizewinners in the series of current news articles we have published over the last two months.
Photography courtesy of Scott Rudd.