A Letter to Michael Kaiser About Cultural Diplomacy

Dear Mr. Kaiser:

I read with interest your open letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, in which you propose a new form of cultural diplomacy: to send arts administrators abroad to teach fundraising skills to their counterparts at cultural institutions, which in the current fiscal climate can no longer depend on government funding. The model of cultural diplomacy followed by most developed nations, the exchange of information and ideas, you dismiss as a waste of money: touring artists is expensive, you argue, and appeals only to elites. But this is a misreading of American cultural diplomacy, which consists of a variety of artistic and educational programs often geared toward reaching underserved populations. Sending artists to teach and perform in places of strategic interest is in fact a cost-efficient means for the State Department to articulate our ideals to foreign audiences, build bridges between friends and foes alike, create sustaining networks.

How does this work in practice? Hip-hop artists and jazz musicians perform for crowds in the Middle East; dance troupes collaborate with young people to choreograph new pieces; artists travel to remote villages to help paint murals related to social policy (HIV/AIDS prevention, conflict resolution, women's rights); students and scholars are awarded Fulbright fellowships; museum professionals are trained in capacity building; academic, cultural, and political figures visit American institutions to see how things are done here, trade ideas, make friends;--the list goes on. (Disclosure: the International Writing Program, which I direct, has received numerous grants from the State Department.) What impresses is the range of activity--the sheer abundance of knowledge, craft, technique, and insight about the creative process passed from one individual to another, in the service of sparking new ideas and finding common ground.

In a 2005 report to the State Department, I argued that listening is the key to successful cultural diplomacy, and in devising programs in countries around the world American diplomats respond to local needs: dance administrators bring expertise and tap shoes to dance companies in rural Mozambique; student musicians from Afghanistan perform in the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall; young American and Saudi women meet in a digital video conference room to compare impressions of Toni Morrison's Beloved and Rajaa Alsanea's Girls of Riyadh. "Only connect," E. M. Forster advised novelists; the same holds for the practice of cultural diplomacy.

The mission during the Cold War was to share America's story with the world; hence the tours of artists like Louis Armstrong and Robert Frost, presenting the most sophisticated and original face of American culture of the era. Post-9/11, our cultural diplomacy is more nuanced: stage technicians from Bahrain visit theaters in America to get ideas for their work in Manama, poets conduct writing workshops with Somali refugees in Kenya, hip-hop artists raise awareness about disabilities. The challenge is to create new structures to convey core ideas of America: democracy, civic engagement, human rights, youth empowerment, mutual understanding.

Self-sufficiency is part of that story. And teaching cultural leaders in emerging democracies to find private resources may be useful. But it is important to remember that every nation has its own tradition of supporting the arts, just as it has its own form of cultural diplomacy befitting its history and strategic interests. Our decentralized culture, soul-making that depends more on the private sector than government, will not fly everywhere. Think China or Russia. Better to pass along the fruits of our tradition of innovation in the arts, to explain the philosophies and practices in which such creativity can grow and thrive. In the course of my travels I have met on every continent artists and writers expert in securing funds for their projects, and I cannot imagine telling them how to raise money in their own back yard. But I can share with them my thinking about the music and meaning of Whitman's "Song of Myself" or Frost's "Directive." I can search for ways to collaborate on projects that will lead to new works of fiction and poetry, new figures for our shared walk in the sun. I can also hope that your letter will spark a conversation about how best to utilize in the art of the possible the riches of our vibrant arts community. Thank you for your time.


Christopher Merrill