NEA Arts Magazine

Expanding Creativity

US Artists International Supports U.S. Artists at Foreign Festivals

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 A large outdoor stage with dancers at night with an illuminated cathedral in the background

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing at the 2007 Estivales de Perpignan in front of the Campo Santo in southern France. Photo courtesy of Merce Cunningham Dance Company

No matter how revered an American performing arts ensemble may be at home, there’s a special recognition that comes with performing abroad. Appearing at major international festivals validates an ensemble or company’s caliber, and allows American artists a valuable chance to network with performers from other countries. As the cost of international touring continues to climb, the NEA and its funding partners remain committed to supporting foreign festival engagements.

Since 2005, USArtists International (USAI)—administered by regional arts organization Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation and supported by the NEA, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Trust for Mutual Understanding—has awarded roughly 30 grants each year to musical ensembles and dance companies that were invited to perform at European festivals. The program replaced Arts International, a partnership sustained from 1987 to 2004 by the NEA, the U.S. Department of State, and several foundations.

Alan Cooper, executive director of Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, oversees the three-year-old USAI program. “It’s become increasingly important for dance companies and musical ensembles to take advantage of performing opportunities in other parts of the world to establish credentials,” Cooper said. “It’s critical to their creative development.”

Organizations that receive USArtists International grants tend to fit one of three categories: performing arts stalwarts; emerging, avant-garde talents; or representatives of a regional style. In 2007, for example, Louisiana zydeco musician Terrance Simien took his band to the Stimmen Festival in Germany while the 55-year-old Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed at festivals in France and Italy. The roster of artists touring in 2008 includes the new music collective Alarm Will Sound, Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet, and the Chicago-based Great Black Music Ensemble, a band that made its European debut at the 17th annual Sons d’Hiver (Sounds of Winter) festival, a three-week celebration of African diaspora music held in Fontainebleau, France.

For some of these groups, receiving a USArtists grant is a welcome stamp of approval; for others, it’s an economic necessity. Cooper recognizes that the grants, ranging from $1,000 to $15,000, are small, but they make a difference.

USAI received a major funding boost in July, when the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Trust for Mutual Understanding announced that they would significantly increase their support. The increased funding means that theater companies will now be eligible to apply, and festival appearances are no longer limited to Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Cooper welcomed the news. “The goal here is to try and make sure that the widest possible range of creativity in the U.S. is represented at international festivals. We are always working on expansion, and we want others to recognize the importance of this work.”