NEA Arts Magazine

Art Ambassadors

The NEA and International Cultural Exchange Residencies


 In the foreground a young musician plays the saxophone, while Chick Corea sits at the piano

NEA Jazz Master Chick Corea (left) jams with Russian jazz musician Stanislav Dolzhkov in Louisville, Kentucky, as part of the 2008 Open World Cultural Leaders Program. Photo courtesy of Open World

The NEA’s primary mission to bring great art, artists, and arts experiences to all Americans includes not only support for domestic programs, but also an engagement with the global arts and culture community. The agency meets this need, in part, through partnerships with U.S. organizations that facilitate U.S. residencies for international visitors and international residencies for Americans. Three of these collaborative eforts are the Open World Cultural Leaders Program, the ArtsLink Residencies, and the U.S./Japan Creative Artists’ Program. The Open World and ArtsLink programs focus on Russia, Central Europe, and Eurasia, bringing that region’s accomplished artists to the U.S. for intense periods of cultural immersion. These visiting arts leaders use their time in the U.S. to advance their artistic mastery, observe the inner workings of U.S. arts organizations, and share their creative expressions and traditions with Americans. The same is true for the U.S./Japan Fellows who find their relationship to their own artmaking, teaching, and arts management practices in the U.S. transformed by their time in Japan, a country where 2006 fellow Sheri Simons noted, “culture and tradition and language are . . . absolutely intertwined.”

Though varied in scope, length, and number of participants, what these programs have in common is that visitors and hosts alike act as de facto global ambassadors, exchanging ideas and exploring one another’s cultures, not across a diplomatic conference table, but in an art or dance studio, at a concert, in a classroom, or simply over a shared meal at a kitchen table.

Open World Cultural Leaders Program

The Open World Leadership Center is an independent federal agency that administers one of the few exchange programs in the government’s legislative branch. The center funded few cultural leaders until it partnered with the NEA in 2004 to create the OpenWorld Cultural Leaders Program, which offers two to three-week residencies at U.S. cultural institutions to Russian artists and arts managers. With an average of 75 participants annually, Open World has brought more than 300 cultural delegates to the U.S. for residencies since 2003.

Leading Russian arts professionals and institutions nominate participants, whose applications are then vetted by the U.S. Embassy and Open World’s partner organization, CEC ArtsLink. NEA support has assisted organizations such as the Brubeck Institute in Stockton, California, the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina, and the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in Iowa City to host visiting artists.

Open World fellows participate in activities such as behind-the-scenes tours of cultural institutions and performance venues, performance and teaching opportunities, and seminars on arts administration. Most recently, a delegation of Russian icon painters visited New Mexican artists who craft retablos (portable altar boxes) for a cross-cultural discussion on religious art. And just this past March, emerging Russian jazz artists in residence at the University of Louisville School of Music took part in a master class with NEA Jazz Master Chick Corea.

Ambassador John O’Keefe, Open World’s executive director, noted that these cultural collaborations are as important for the U.S. as for the Russian delegates. “The United States benefits through the strengthened relationships and professional networking that occur as a result of Open World exchanges . . . Open World hosts and their American communities make a difference in international relations at the grassroots level. We find that, though many of our delegates arrive with a healthy skepticism and a belief that the program may be orchestrated to show only one side of America, [time] in our communities melts that shell of cynicism.”

ArtsLink Residencies

CEC ArtsLink is a nonprofit cultural exchange organization that focuses on Central Europe, Eurasia, and Russia. In addition to working with Open World on the Cultural Leaders Program, CEC ArtsLink also hosts its own international cultural exchange programs, which include the ArtsLink Residencies in partnership with the NEA. Since 1993, the program has sponsored five-week residencies in the U.S. for more than 400 artists and arts managers from 26 countries, including Croatia, Moldova, and Kyrgyzstan, to name a few. The NEA supports residency costs for U.S. organizations that host the visiting fellows.

Shot of dancers taken from above.  Some are lying down on the floor while a female on a wheelchair stretches her arms toward the camera

2007 ArtsLink Fellow Ilya Belenkov (Russia) performing with the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in Takoma Park, Maryland. Photo courtesy of Ilya Belenkov


A3er the region’s many political changes in the mid-90s, CEC saw an opportunity to use the arts to “engage with those people who were formerly isolated and who also saw us as enemies and viewed us with suspicion,” explained Executive Director Fritzie Brown. “[We] really saw the diplomatic benefit of artists, who live to communicate anyway, exchanging ideas and learning about one another’s culture.” She added that even though countries in that part of the world are no longer as isolated, more applications are coming in from the very eastern countries of Central Asia. “This means these people are coming into the conversation, and it extends the conversation to include issues of Muslim identities as well as those historical and political di4erences that we had seen in the past.”

ArtsLink Residencies alternate annually between visual and media artists and writers and performing artists. Fellows come to the U.S. with a variety of goals. Some plan to work on collaborative projects with U.S. artists, some want to study U.S. fundraising and development models, and others hope to learn new techniques in their particular discipline. The selection panel looks for individuals who have “a broader notion of what a residency can do and a cultural curiosity and flexibility.” Brown noted the importance of fellows having a realistic view of what their time in the U.S. can provide. The outcome, however, sometimes exceeds everyone’s expectations. “One of the things that we always used to say to our fellows . . . was if you expect to have a show at [a major museum], you’re going to be disappointed, but now we can’t say that because our fellow Dan Perjovschi from Romania had a show in the atrium at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.” As of 2007, 204 U.S. arts and culture organizations in 33 states and the District of Columbia have participated, including New Orleans’s Contemporary Arts Center, which hosted Hungarian saxophonist-composer Viktor Toth, and Maryland’s Liz Lerman’s Dance Exchange, which hosted dancer-choreographer Ilya Belenkov. After the residency, the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange reported to Brown, “[It] provided a helpful lens for considering the value of our tools and the degree to which they do or do not cut across aesthetic lines. It was like suddenly seeing your own work through a different pair of eyes and a different culture, so this is much appreciated.”

U.S./Japan Creative Artists’ Program

The earliest of the NEA’s ongoing international partnerships, dating back to 1978, is the U.S./Japan Creative Artists’ Program, a partnership with the Japan-United States Friendship Commission (JUSFC). The commission is an independent federal agency that provides support to programs that develop and strengthen the relationship between Japan and the U.S. More than 150 U.S. artists have received these highly competitive, multidisciplinary fellowships since the program’s inception, including NEA Literature Fellows Suji Kwock Kim and Tony D’Souza. The program receives more than 100 applications each year in all arts disciplines, which are judged not only on artistic merit and excellence, but also on the applicant’s potential to successfully complete the independent residency. Each year, five fellows receive financial support to spend five months in Japan pursuing a self-directed path of cultural exploration, study, and networking. Fellows receive a monthly stipend to support their living expenses and professional expenses in Japan. They also receive support for roundtrip transportation and pre-residency language courses.

Although the residencies are conducted independently, arriving fellows receive an in-depth orientation, help with navigating Japan’s housing market, and introductions to key contacts in their fields from the International House of Japan, another primary program partner. While many of the artists conduct their residencies in Tokyo, fellows have studied everywhere from metropolises, such as Kyoto and Hiroshima, to small, isolated fishing villages. Fellows are not required to complete a specific project during their residency. They are, however, encouraged to become part of Japan’s cultural life, and many offer presentations—such as gallery shows, poetry readings, and concerts—during their time in Japan.

JUFSC Assistant Executive Director Margaret Mihori noted that the fellowships bring an added dimension to international cultural exchange. “While individual performance arts troupes and museum exhibits are exchanged back and forth as single projects between the United States and Japan, the fellows under this program have comprised a steady stream of arts exchange that continues to operate long after individual fellowships are over. The enrichment of each artist and through them, the community, continues to multiply year after year.”

Returning fellows have gone on to receive major acclaim, honors, and prizes based on work they started while on their fellowship. But the most indelible mark le3 by the residency seems to be on the fellows themselves. As 1994 fellowWendy Maruyama, a furnituremaker, has said, “My work still is inspired by my initial trip to Japan, and I never expected to continue or even begin working this way.”