Go inside the worlds of art, fashion, design, and lifestyle.
Last week, Pace Gallery hosted the second annual auction event to raise money for Haiti through the nonprofit organization Artists for Peace and Justice (APJ). The works included in the auction, “Fierce Creativity,” were curated by Jessica Craig-Martin and Chuck Close who, in addition to donating their own works, encouraged some of the biggest names in the contemporary art world to participate, including Cindy Sherman, Damien Hirst, Jasper Johns, and more. The auction raised nearly $1 million last week, and that number is expected to rise as the works continue to sell.
Whitewall spoke with Paul Haggis, award-winning screen writer and founder of APJ, about the cause in Haiti, the work of the organization, and the role of the art world in the endeavor.
WHITEWALL: You began Artists for Peace and Justice after Hurricane Hanna, and then a year later, the earthquake struck in 2010. How did that affect the goals and growth of the organization?
PAUL HAGGIS: I went to Haiti in late 2008 because I’d heard about this guy who worked there, and frankly I just didn’t believe it, and so I went and I stayed with him as he worked in the slums for a week. There was so much he was accomplishing, he’d been there for over 20 years at the time and he does so much with so little. He got the water in the slums, he built this beautiful pediatric hospital there at the edge of the city. He was like this Indiana Jones kind of character, and I said, “Wow, this guy needs some help.” And so I went home to Hollywood.. and I figured I’d just use my influential status there, because whether you like it or not celebrity is what draws people to issues often, and you can’t be cynical about that you just have to use it in the best way possible.
So originally, I figured I was going to support the elementary schools there in the slums. It was going okay, and then the earthquake hit a year or so later, and at that point everything changed. Obviously the eyes of the world were on Haiti and this mass destruction. We got there right away with aid and with food we had shipped in from the Dominican Republic. I came back about a week after the quake happened, and I called my ex-wife Debora and asked her to organize a casual get together in our backyard. Our friends are all actors, directors and writers, and there were just about 70 people there, [but] at that afternoon brunch we were able to raise 4.5 million dollars and long-term cash and long term commitments [to the cause].
And we started the Academy for Peace and Justice. We bought this land just outside the slums in an area called Tovar where the land is stable and it’s certainly earthquake resistant. We wanted to get the school open the year of the quake. They can’t wait. This can’t wait. So we had the first phase of classrooms open by October of 2010. And so now we have something like 2,600 or 2,700 kids there today. And we’re grades 7 through 12.
WW: It’s been five years since the earthquake, so how do you maintain interest and urgency in the cause?
PH: It’s very hard. All of our friends came together for a five year commitment, and then a bunch of them came to me last year and said Paul, I’m just going to keep committing, I’m just going to keep doing it. You know, Daniel Craig, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, they said we’re just going to keep it up. When somebody gives me a dollar, I have a real responsibility to them, they need to see where that dollar goes and that better be effective and it better make a real difference. And we have to be accountable, and we’re very transparent with everything we have.
A year after we got the high school open, we’d been sponsoring David Belle in running a Ciné Institute there, and we decided to absorb them because it was making a big difference. These kids who are graduating are making 20 times what their parents did. With the help of Quincy Jones and Lionel Richie, we started an audio engineering school, and so we’ve now got a film and audio institute that we hope to expand as well. So we’ve got a couple hundred kids in there who will all graduate and 90% of the kids who graduate are employed.
WW: Coming from Hollywood, what has been your relationship to the art world and how did the initial idea for the first installment of “Fierce Creativity” come about?
PH: Yeah, this was not my world at all but we were called Artists for Peace and Justice, and so we always had some supporters in the art world. Jessica Craig-Martin came on board last year, and then she and some other friends went to Chuck [Close] and said, “Would you be a part of this?” Chuck was the co-host of an event we had with Daniel Craig in New York last year. It was his idea to do an art auction. And so he and Jessica called all their friends, people that we could never reach out to, and they’ve all given very generously. I was really humbled by the response. Jessica and Chuck have done such an amazing job. I mean look at what we have – Damien Hirst, Cecily Brown, Kara Walker – it’s a really impressive group. Plus we wanted a real range of work, we wanted work that could be sold anywhere from a couple thousand dollars to $360,000. And that was important to us so that a lot more people could participate in this, so that it’s not just the billionaires.
WW: Are you a collector yourself? Are there any works in the show that you’ve got your eye on?
PH: Yeah, I just bought four pieces from the [auction], I love it and I looked at someone’s work and I went, “Oh, I have to grab that.” They weren’t the most expensive pieces, I’m not the millionaire type that can afford that, but they were great items.
WW: Are there any specific projects that “Fierce Creativity” aims to fund?
PH: You have to get in your basics first, There’s no electricity ,there’s no plumbing, there’s nothing. So we had to build wells, we’re struggling to get electricity in there. We have generators but we’re trying to get solar. And now that we’re up and running we really want to make sure the arts are there. We’re going to open the Chuck Close School of Art there at the high school. I’m so deeply grateful to these artists, to Chuck to Jessica, and all these artists for being so generous. I mean, this is not my world, and they’ve stepped up and they’ve allowed us to expand this and we’re going to be able to bring a lot of programs.
But ultimately, we really want to sustain it, we need to make sure that these institutions are there for the long run. If these kids are given a shot, if they’re given a level playing field like our kids, and they can grow up and get a good education, then maybe one day they’ll grow up and solve Haiti’s problems. At least that’s what we’re hoping.