How Helpful Is Cultural Diplomacy? Very Helpful!

I am generally in agreement with most of Michael Kaiser's ideas relating to arts administration, but I believe he is far too narrow-minded in his thinking about cultural diplomacy as delineated in his blog post of Sept. 21.

In his post, Michael defines American cultural diplomacy as "send[ing] performing groups [abroad] to entertain the elite." Instead of sending artists out into the world to deliver a message about our nation's excellence and diverse cultural values, he proposes sending managers to train foreign arts administrators in fundraising, marketing, and other tools of the American trade.

My problem with this approach is threefold:

First, Americans are always trying to manage everyone and everything. While I believe there is a role for our top arts administrators to share best practices at home and abroad, simply sending managers but no artists is like sending a cookbook without any food.

Second, American artists can be brilliant, diverse, energetic ambassadors of our nation's ideas, values, and concerns. Good artists are able to communicate beyond the barriers of language and connect with peoples' hearts and imaginations. While I am admittedly a fan of fundraising and marketing strategy, I don't believe that exclusively sharing information about those topics engenders any sort of dynamic emotional reaction.

Third, touring artists reach huge, diverse audiences, not just the elite. They travel to massive festivals and perform for audiences from a wide variety of socioeconomic groups. For example, the U.S. Department of State's recently-launched DanceMotion USA (SM) project (produced in conjunction with my own organization, BAM) is grounded in community-based performance presentations and comes packaged with a wide range of educational materials. It is designed to work in the heart of local communities in three regions across the globe -- South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia -- in cities as far-ranging as Bangkok, Cartagena, Lagos and Rangoon.

I believe that cultural diplomacy can encompass many things, including the export of both our artistic and managerial talents. The world's problems often seem intractable, and sometimes we are simply too far apart for negotiation, mediation, even basic discussion. When talking just won't do, art can be a way of opening doors, getting acquainted and learning more about the other side.

Consider another BAM example: our recent city-wide Muslim Voices festival, which included 11 New York City cultural partners, a policy-based conference, and the presentation of over 300 artists from 25 countries throughout the Muslim world. For me, the transcendent moment of the festival was the five standing ovations that erupted throughout a collaborative concert between gospel singer Craig Adams' Voices of New Orleans and Faiz Ali Faiz, the legendary Qawwali singer from Pakistan: two artists who crossed cultures to work together and thrill audiences with their collective voices joined in celestial song!

As Michelle Obama eloquently stated at last month's G-20 summit, "people who might not speak a single word of the same language, who might not have a single shared experience, might still be drawn together when their hearts are lifted by the notes of a song, or their souls are stirred by a vision on a canvas.

"That is the power of the arts -- to remind us of what we each have to offer, and what we all have in common; to help us understand our history and imagine our future; to give us hope in the moments of struggle; and to bring us together when nothing else will."

Cultural diplomacy is an incredibly powerful tool. It allows for the creative energy of a people and a nation to be shared with audiences and communities worldwide, and if given a chance, can promote genuine goodwill and cross-cultural understanding. Let's not restrict the opportunities for sharing our creative spirit to conferences where we expound the glories of digital media and institutional audits but ignore the transformative power of great artistic experiences.