Art Works Blog

The Art of Diplomacy

Last November, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke at a luncheon in praise of a diplomatic tool “that reaches beyond governments, past all of the official conference rooms and the presidential palaces, to connect with people all over the world.” But she wasn’t referring to technology, or town hall meetings, or international summits. Instead, she was talking about art.

The luncheon was in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the State Department’s Office of Art in Embassies (AIE), which was initially envisioned by the Museum of Modern Art before becoming formalized by President Kennedy in 1963. Since its inception, AIE has partnered with over 20,000 artists, museums, universities, and galleries to facilitate loans, commission new works, and curate permanent collections for American embassies, consulates, and ambassadorial residences. The idea behind the international artistic exchange is simple: when dialogue fails and cultural differences seem insurmountable, the arts can remind us of our common humanity.

Today, some 10,000 works are exhibited in over 200 American missions around the world. Each piece highlights the cultural richness of the United States or of the host country, and often focuses on what happens artistically when two nations intersect. In addition to physical works of art, AIE also facilitates artist exchanges, lectures, and workshops, bringing the knowledge and talents of our artists to individuals around the world. Below are five recent projects supported by AIE, which gives a sample of the breadth and impact of this dynamic program.

Roberto Lopardo: Mapping Dubai (Dubai, United Arab Emirates)

An American artist living in Dubai, Roberto Lopardo recently created artwork for the city’s new U.S. Embassy building. Using the new construction as a microcosm for Dubai’s rapidly shifting urban landscape, Lopardo walked from the old U.S. Consulate to the new Embassy, taking one photograph per minute along the way. The resulting 1,440 images---taken over 24 hours---document the route from an artist’s perspective, and literally exemplify the idea of how we view other cultures.

Chris Doyle, Social Structure II, Art in Embassies Permanent Exhibition, U.S. Embassy Sarajevo. Photo courtesy of Art in Embassies, U.S. Department of State

Chris Doyle: Social Structure II (Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina)

Before beginning their AIE commissions, many artists immerse themselves in the culture of the country that will host their pieces. However, American artist Chris Doyle was unable to do so, and instead conducted research for his installation using his online social networks. He was able to connect with four artists in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, and sent each out to photograph the mountains and woodlands surrounding Sarajevo. Doyle translated these images into triangular aluminum panels, a shape that was chosen to reflect the city’s population of Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats. In this way, Social Structure II was a true international collaboration, allowing an exchange of ideas and images across oceans, borders, and broadband. As Doyle said in a statement about the piece, “While the piece remains behind in Sarajevo, I take with me a set of new relationships and a far deeper understanding of a rich and complex culture and people.”

Victoria Greising showing a technique while making A Character From Childhood during a local exchange in Gaborone, Botswana. Photo courtesy of Art in Embassies, U.S. Department of State

Victoria Greising: (No Title) (Gaborone, Botswana)

The Art in Embassies program isn’t just about creating new works of art. It’s about using art as a means to build dialogue and foster cross-cultural collaboration. American artist Victoria Greising recently traveled to Botswana as part of an AIE artist exchange. While there, she lectured at the College of Education---home of Botswana’s only university-level art program---and led a four-day workshop at Thapong Arts Center, where she taught her technique in weaving intricate fabric webs to over 40 Botswanian artists, collectors, designers, educators. For many, it was their first exposure to the fabric arts. Following the workshop, Greising selected seven participants to help her complete an installation at the home of Ambassador Michelle Gavin, who has been representing the U.S. in Botswana since 2011. In an interview with State Magazine following Greising's visit, Ambassador Gavin said the exchange "gave us a new and engaging way to expand our dialogues with the people of Botswana on two of our top priorities---engaging with Botswana’s youth and supporting entrepreneurship."

Zane Berzina, Touch Me (interactive mural painting with thermochromic pigments), Art in Embassies Permanent Exhibition, U.S. Embassy Riga 2010. Photo courtesy of Art in Embassies, U.S. Department of State

Zane Berzina: Touch Me IV (Riga, Latvia)

In 2011, Latvian artist Zane Berzina was commissioned to create a site-specific work for the new U.S. Embassy in her native country. Working with Latvian art students, Berzina installed Touch Me IV, the latest in her series of interactive, free-standing walls that respond to human touch by shifting color. While the linear design of the installation mimics the architecture of the Riga building, Berzina has said that “the wall’s surface bears a visible record---if only for a moment---of its interactions and offers a playful reminder of the immediacy and impact of direct human contact.” Within the context of the embassy, it serves as a reminder of the impact of cultural interaction and contact as well.

Brice Marden, Untitled No. 3, Art in Embassies Exhibition London, Winfield House 2009. Courtesy of Agnes Gund, New York, New York. Photo courtesy of Art in Embassies, U.S. Department of State

Brice Marden: Untitled No. 3 (London, United Kingdom) 

Until recently, Marden’s Untitled No. 3 hung in the state dining room of  Winfield House, the London residence of the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. The painting  was on loan to Art in Embassies as part of the temporary exhibition in Londons entitled, Americans Abroad: Masterworks by Modern and Contemporary Artists, which also featured work from Mark Rothko, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Roy Lichtenstein, Willem de Kooning, and Ellsworth Kelly. In addition to his showcased work at the embassy, Marden was the first artist to kick off a new collaboration between AIE/Tate Modern and the London Embassy, “American Artist Lecture Series” in May 2012.  Marden was interviewed by Sir Nicholas Serota about his work and philosophy. The partnership will include a total of six artists over three years. Thus far, Brice Marden and Maya Lin lectured in 2012. Ellen Gallagher and Jenny Holzer are scheduled  for 2013.

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