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Family honors sister's UN service with artwork donation to ASU

painting of a woman on a swing
January 21, 2015

An island shook. A nation bled. A sister lost her life.

On Jan. 12, 2010, a catastrophic magnitude-7.0 earthquake centered near the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince leveled residences and businesses, and more than 200,000 people lost their lives. Within two weeks of the massive temblor, 45 aftershocks of magnitude-4.5 or greater had been recorded.

Vital infrastructure was damaged or destroyed. Hospitals; air, sea and land transport facilities; and communication systems ceased to operate. Devastation was everywhere. Of the lives cut short that afternoon was Nicole Valenta, a United Nations best practices officer based in the capital city. The headquarters of the U.N.’s stabilization mission where she worked collapsed, killing many, including mission chief Hédi Annabi.

Five years later, out of the country’s ruin and a family’s sorrow, comes a philanthropic gift of Haitian art to Arizona State University’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. Nicole Valenta’s younger and only brother, Marcel Valenta, and his parents, Anne and Gunter, donated the 15-piece collection of modern paintings in her memory.

Included in the gift is artwork by Préfète Duffaut, an iconic Haitian painter who was commissioned in 1950 to paint murals in the interior of the Cathedral of Sainte Trinité, which was destroyed in the 2010 quake, as well as Nelson Woodley, who learned from the widely collected St. Louis Blaise, and is a celebrated painter in his own right.

“My sister always had an interest in all kinds of artistic expression – music, dancing, painting, photography, architecture – and she dabbled in most of them herself,” says Marcel Valenta, who serves as general counsel for the ASU Foundation for A New American University.

Nicole collected the paintings during her four years (2007-2010) as the U.N.’s conduct and discipline officer in Haiti and ultimately chief of the international organization’s best practices unit.

Her career with the U.N. began in 2000 and was the culmination of a lifelong dream to help others. Appointed associate officer with the U.N. Institute for Training and Research in Geneva, she was transferred to New York in 2002, where she was responsible for trainings related to international affairs and diplomacy. After studying law at New York University and passing the New York state bar exam, she accepted a U.N. field position in the Democratic Republic of Congo, serving as a human rights officer in Kinshasa and later in Beni Ituri.

“Her taste was broad and inclusive, and I hope my donation helps add an interesting piece to the puzzle that this rich, colorful ASU community already is,” says Marcel. “If only a fraction of the students viewing these paintings start dreaming about an international career and then in fact embark on the path of pursuing one, this donation will have achieved more than my sister would have ever dared to hope for.”

Haitian art, first developed during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, reflects the island country’s African roots and features Native American and European aesthetic and religious influences. “Haitian art is what makes the international eye see us," said Joseph Gaspard, of Musée d’Art Haitien du Collège St Pierre, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times just weeks following the earthquake. "Every Haitian is an artist. Art, it is us, it's what we are."

Marcel says he chose to donate the artworks to New College because of the school’s inclusive and multi-perspective focus that mirrors his sister’s character. “In its interdisciplinary approach to education, New College, in my view, helps students develop the versatility and open-mindedness necessary to succeed in an environment as multi-faceted and diverse as the U.N.’s. Philosophically, these two institutions have a lot in common. Having my sister’s life serve as even the slightest inspiration for an international career for any of the New College graduates would have made her so happy.

“I also hope the paintings can serve as a first step in building a relationship between New College and the United Nations,” Marcel adds. “Both organizations are about interdisciplinary outreach, inclusion and breadth. They both seek minds who are just as confident repairing a Diesel engine as they are understanding the historic perspective of a tribal dispute in northeastern Congo.”

Marcel’s gift of artwork, and the contributions of those who support New College and ASU through collections, real estate and physical assets, are critical to the continued advancement of the university and the learning experience of its students, says Marlene Tromp, vice provost at ASU’s West campus and New College dean.

“We value the importance of this extraordinary artwork that the Valenta family has donated in Nicole’s memory,” says Tromp, a professor of English and women and gender studies. “We strive to be good stewards of all the gifts we receive, and in-kind gifts such as this help us offer truly unique learning experiences for our students, as well as to maximize our resources for serving students and the community. This artwork will play a vital role in connecting students to a world beyond the classroom, and we are honored to display it for all of ASU to enjoy.”

“Nicole loved people and collected art based on her love for people,” says Marcel. “She never viewed art through a curator’s eye, and didn’t care what others thought about the art or its market value. Her collection, to me, is a sign of her incredible ability to immerse herself in different cultures and to truly be intrigued by the people in the places she lived in.

“My donation should be an example of how ASU can serve as an incredible amplifier to any type of philanthropy,” Marcel adds. “Everyone, I believe, always has a chance to change their trajectory in life, set new goals and succeed in achieving them. But one of the best opportunities in life to break through ceilings, positively impact one’s trajectory and do things one thought one couldn’t do is probably during the four years of college. That’s powerful stuff, and for anyone who is in the position to be generous, contributing to an organization like ASU is a great opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives and positively impact societal change at a meaningful scale.”

Steve Des Georges
Director, Marketing Content Development
ASU Enterprise Marketing Hub
(480) 727-0757