How Helpful Is Cultural Diplomacy?

As the Obama administration tries to rebuild America's image abroad, do we need to send dance companies and theater companies abroad?
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For the last six years I have been obsessed with the concept of cultural diplomacy. While other countries have been active exporters of their arts -- China and Great Britain come to mind -- the United States government has been reticent to invest in this form of diplomacy. This was not always the case: both American Ballet Theatre and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater added the word 'American' to their names at the request of the State Department about half a century ago when they were sent on government-sponsored international tours. But while some American embassies abroad have been active in bringing American artists and arts groups to 'their' countries in recent years, this is still a very minor activity of the Department of State. But does traditional cultural diplomacy work? Do we need state-supported tours by American performing arts groups when without federal funding so many of our performers and performing arts groups are appearing all over the world, when American architects are designing high profile buildings internationally and when American artists are featured in the great museums? Does sending a symphony orchestra to play for a thousand of the most powerful people in the capital of another nation truly affect the way our nation is viewed? As the Obama administration tries to rebuild America's image abroad, do we need to send dance companies and theater companies abroad? My response, not popular with my peers running arts organizations across the United States, is no. Marketing only works (and cultural diplomacy is marketing) when it is frequently repeated. And it is simply too expensive to send orchestras and dance companies and theater groups to the same territory over and over again. And are we really influencing the citizens of a nation when we send performing groups to entertain the elite? Don't the elite come to the U.S. anyway? (And frankly, many people in foreign countries feel they get enough American culture via television, movies and popular music.) But that does not mean that cultural diplomacy should be discarded. Rather, I believe we need to abandon traditional forms of cultural diplomacy in favor of a new approach. The major problem facing arts organizations across the globe is a reduction in funding they are receiving from their governments. Outside of the United States, arts organizations in almost every country rely on government funding for the majority of their support. As governments find themselves unable to maintain this level of support, arts organizations are seeking new methods for finding funding. Given our reliance on private funding, Americans have a great deal to teach abroad. We can teach how we build sponsorship by corporations and especially individuals. We can teach how we use marketing to expand the reach of our arts organizations. We can teach the importance of long-term program planning for building new sources of support. I have been pursuing this form of cultural diplomacy for six years, and have now taught arts managers in 60 countries. These arts leaders now are attempting to support their organizations in new ways. They are grateful for the help they have received from the Kennedy Center, America's national cultural center. This gratitude extends to the governmental leaders of the nations in which we teach; it is not unusual for us to meet with mayors, ministers of culture and even presidents and prime ministers when we work abroad. They are all impressed that Americans care not just to export their own culture, but to see to the health of arts organizations in their country and around the world. (And because we teach over a period of years, and build strong relationships in every country, the impact is far greater and longer-term than for any one concert.) The U.S. gains immense prestige and good will. And the cost is so small: one airline ticket and a hotel room.

While the Kennedy Center's international work is privately funded, maybe the State Department could support a program that allows other American arts organizations to teach abroad. (The money saved could be given to arts organizations to invest in programming, marketing and touring.) Maybe this is a new way we can truly explain the value of a thoughtful, involved, generous democratic society across the globe.

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