Brown’s new performing arts center name sparks outrage among Cambodian Rhode Islanders

Updated at 6:05 p.m.

THE LINDEMANN Performing Arts Center, slated to open at Brown University in October, has drown the ire of members of the Rhode Island Cambodian community. The Lindemann family has been implicated in theft of antiquities from the Southeast Asian nation. / COURTESY BROWN UNIVERSITY

PROVIDENCE – A 101,000-square foot building on Angell Street is set to be a jewel in the crown of Brown University’s multibillion-dollar real estate portfolio. 

The Lindemann Performing Arts Center, slated to open in October, includes a luxurious wood-paneled performance lab for rehearsal and performances of dance, music, and theater. And its centerpiece: a symphony hall able to accommodate a full orchestra and 625 seats that can retract underground and windows that also move to suit any given performance. 

Brown plans to allow members of the public to reserve the space for rehearsals, shows, and meetings, said Avery Willis Hoffman, artistic director for Brown Arts Institute. 

“We’re trying to be as inclusive as possible,” Hoffman told about a dozen or so journalists and academics during a June tour of the state-of-the-art facility.  

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Yet one group says it was excluded from having a say in the decision regarding the name of the family that appears on the exterior of the building. 

“The Lindemann family has a legacy, a legacy, of buying stolen artifacts of Cambodia,” Chanda Womack, executive director of the Alliance of Rhode Island Southeast Asians for Education. 

“They have millions of dollars of artifacts from Cambodia that they refuse to return.” 

Womack made her remarks on April 29 at Providence City Hall during a remembrance event for the 2 million people killed during the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s. Close to 100 Rhode Island Cambodians, their friends, and families, gathered together that day to process the trauma of 50 years ago. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 5,740 self-identified Cambodians in Rhode Island. 

It’s a wound some members of this community now feel Brown has slashed open again. 

In May 2022, Brown University named the performing arts center after what a news release called a “generous gift” for its construction from Frayda B. Lindemann, a member of its board of Trustees, (Brown did not disclose the amount). A musician herself, Lindemann also serves on the Board of Directors for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. In 1994, she established the Lindemann Charitable Foundation — alongside her late husband, George Lindemann — to support arts and access to them across the country. 

Three months after Brown made its naming decision, The Washington Post reported in August 2022 that the Lindemann family was widely known as connoisseurs and collectors of ancient medieval and Khmer artifacts. 

Questions about how the family obtained these artifacts had lingered after a photo of the San Francisco home of author and lawyer Sloan Lindemann Barnett, the daughter of Frayda and George, appeared in Architectural Digest in January 2021. The photo appeared to have been altered to remove several Khmer artifacts, according to The Washington Post’s report.  

Representatives from the Lindemann Charitable Foundation and the Barnett Family Office, in Miami and Chicago respectively, did not respond to multiple phone calls over the course of three months’ reporting requesting comment. 

The Cambodian government claimed the artifacts in the photo were looted from a sacred site and possibly sold by Douglas Latchford, a British antiquarian who specialized in the sale of artifacts Southeast Asia and lived in Thailand. In 2019, the Department of Justice grand jury indicted Latchford on two counts of wire fraud, two counts of smuggling, and one count of entry of goods into the U.S. via false statements.

Beginning in the 1970s — during the U.S.-backed military dictatorship of Lon Nol and accompanying fight against the Khmer Rouge insurgency — Latchford took advantage of the chaos to smuggle hundreds of artifacts out of the country, according to the indictment. He continued to do this well into the 21st century, long after the Cambodian government passed a law to combat smuggling in 1996.  

According to the indictment, Latchford attempted to sell a “recently found” 12th century Khmer Siva statue (the Khmer Empire was Hindu for most of its history) — in 2006. On a customs form, he claimed he acquired it from a seller and sought $175,000 for the artifact. 

Latchford and co-conspirators often gave evidence of false provenance to customs authorities. In 2009, he and an alleged scholar claimed a 12th century statue of a Naga Buddha originated in Laos and was worth only $6,500. The indictment stated he went on to sell it for $175,000. 

Indeed, Latchford was so prolific that he eventually amassed a personal collection worth $50 million according to The New York Times — rivaling that of the National Museum of Cambodia. 

Latchford never learned of the indictment; he was in a coma and later died on Aug. 2, 2020. Soon after, Latchford’s daughter, Nawapan Kriangsak, announced the construction of a museum in Cambodia to house those artifacts. 

“Anybody who believes in justice cannot just accept this,” said Mu Sochhua, a Cambodian political dissident living in exile in Rhode Island, in reference to the naming of the building after the Lindemann family. “At the end of the day, you looted these artifacts from a people whose soul was broken by the Khmer Rouge; and if you want to rebuild a nation, you start with its soul.”  

“The question of owning looted art that is looted in the context of genocide simply is universally recognized as an immoral thing to do,” said Robert Lee, a retired professor of Asian American studies at Brown. 

Brown University spokesman Brian Clark told Rhode Island Current in an email that the university learned of the controversy surrounding the artifacts with the publication of the August 2022 article in The Washington Post. 

“We are aware of the later news reports, beginning in August 2022, regarding arts holdings of members of the Lindemann family,” Clark said. 

Though Brown did not reveal the donation amounts, records from the Internal Revenue Service revealed two donations to Brown University in the amount of $300,000 from the Lindemann Foundation in 2018 and 2020. 

“Among other provisions, our policies make clear that acceptance of a gift does not imply or mean that the University endorses or approves of a donor’s views, opinions, businesses or activities,” Clark said.  

“We are grateful to the Lindemann family and to Frayda Lindemann for her service on (sic) the Corporation of Brown University.” 

But Lee, who sits on the ARISE Board of Directors, responded to the statement, saying that Brown is not acting morally. 

“[The statement] says that Brown has shirked its larger moral responsibility here to speak to this issue that is well known,” he said. “For Brown not to make a public statement that says the art should be returned, that seems to me to be the minimum requirement for an institution that believes in human values. 

“The fact that there has been a lot of money that has exchanged hands and Brown has been a beneficiary of the Lindemann largesse does not absolve Brown from that moral responsibility.” 

Womack said members of ARISE reached out to the school and are scheduled to meet with Brown officials on Wednesday, July 26 at 3 p.m. 

Dozens of area Cambodians, their families, and friends filled the Providence City Council Chamber on Sunday, April 9, cupping electric candles in their hands, they sat on the floor. Several community elders lead chants in Pali, a buddhist liturgical language originally from Vedic India.  

They prayed for the millions murdered over nearly four years of genocide by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia — an effort to reset society to year 0 and create a Maoist state. 

After about an hour of chanting, prayers, and performances, Womack arose before the group. 

“We have a call to action,” said Womack, executive director of the Alliance of Rhode Island Southeast Asians for Education (ARISE). “For the past month, ARISE, and [Providence Youth Student Movement], and the Cambodian Society of Rhode Island, and 30 other organizations, have been organizing against Brown University.  

“Yes, Brown University, where we all want to send our kids,” she continued, using a measured tone of indignancy. Womack’s words were clear.  

“These artifacts are connected to our country’s soul,” she said. 

Mu seconded Womack’s comment, saying that the genocide wrecked the nation, destroying even her connection, where she watched in worry from Paris as her homeland instantly went silent after the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, in April 1975. She spoke to her parents on the phone about a week before, but never again. 

“I’m sure they died early on [in the genocide],” she said. “I really don’t know how they died. They just disappeared.” 

For her, the pain of being disconnected from her country, and her family, left its mark. Among the Khmer diaspora, the trauma suffered in the war and genocide — as well as that accompanying relocation to the U.S. — gave birth to cycles of substance abuse, poverty, incarceration, and deportation still playing themselves out today.  

“Part of the healing process is to restore a broken sense of history,” Lee said. “Khmai culture and its sense of history has been shattered by the Civil War, the U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia, then the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the genocide. 

“All of that meant that Cambodia, not just as a nation-state but as a culture, has been shattered,” he continued. “Art is really critical to dealing with the intergenerational trauma that still exists today.” 

For Mu, the pain is shared nationally — and internationally — among her countrymen.   

“Cambodia’s soul was destroyed during those years,” she said. “Those artifacts represent the nation’s soul. And if you want to heal a nation, you need to start with its soul.”  

Lee echoed the sentiment, saying that re-establishing a nation’s spiritual connection to its past is a critical part of the healing process. 

The Southeast Asian Studies Initiative, a student group seeking to launch a program focused on Southeast Asia at Brown University since 2016, argued the school could make conciliatory moves to the community by investing in it and taking their desire for a program seriously.  

“We envision a future where Brown University repairs the harm in accepting these funds,” Filbert Aung, a spokesman for the initiative said in an email, “by 1) investing further in Providence’s Southeast Asian communities and 2) furthering the research and study of Southeast Asia and Southeast Asia America at Brown. 

“SEASI acknowledges that the communities most impacted by the harm perpetrated by the Lindemann family are not academics and scholars working within the institution but people of Cambodian descent, including the descendants of displaced refugees who are currently living within the United States.” 

Lee said that the university’s reluctance to call on the Lindemanns to return the artifacts reflects a lack of interest in communities of color locally, even if the decision to return the artifacts is not theirs. 

“This is not a quid pro quo for any of this, but Brown could make a good deal more effort in communication with Southeast Asian Communities in Rhode Island,” he said. “Had they been paying more attention to those communities of color then they might have been paying more attention to the issue of looted Cambodian art.” 

He added that the fact that they are in private hands only adds insult to injury. 

“Let’s be clear that these pieces are not in a museum,” Lee said. “They are in someone’s private home.  

“They will have to be held by the Khmai people.” 

For Cambodians like Mu, an acknowledgement of the injustice of losing the nation’s soul to private hands would be a necessary first step in moving toward healing. 

“Brown has to listen to the community,” she said, “and forward the message to the family. 

“There is no real closure,” she continued. “We will always be haunted.” 

(ADDS 14TH paragraph inadvertently cut from original version.)

 Kevin G. Andrade is a staff writer for the Rhode Island Current.

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