US Cultural Engagement with Global Muslim Communities

Contours and Connections in an Emerging Field

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 26, No 1 (Winter 2015)

Jennifer C. Lena and Erin F. Johnston

The opportunities to connect communities through culture and to use that cultural engagement to educate one another are simultaneously compelling and challenging to cultural foundations and philanthropists. Recent reports and research provide strong arguments and preliminary insights into ways that culture can advance engagement across boundaries, both geographic and societal. But the most challenging efforts may be those intended to connect the United States to Muslim populations abroad.

The emerging field of US audience engagement with artists hailing from majority-Muslim nations (and their diaspora) is not well developed or highly structured. The United States faces unique challenges, including the relative insularity and global innocence of many Americans, and the extent of misinformation, media distortion, and anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States (“US Cultural Engagement,” 2014). These conditions may account for the relative lack of collaborative initiatives in the United States relative to those led by European countries and cultural entities (Schneider 2009).

At the October 2013 conference “Cultural Connections: Engaging Muslim-Majority Nations and the West,” held by New York University’s Brademas Center, discussions about the state of the field centered on the idea of “global circuits.” Participants suggested that practitioners, both independent and rooted in organizations, formed networks of connection through which art and artists flow, ranging from very informal and casual — in which practitioners may not have even met but share a common source of funding or presentation — to the most deliberate and formal. Likewise, participants emphasized the large degree of variation in programs, venue types, and disciplines, ranging from traditional to contemporary and hybrid forms, present in the field.

Earlier reports reveal that current exchanges tend to privilege some forms of art and artists over others. A NYU Center for Dialogues report (Bridging the Divide, 2009) suggested that current exchanges tend to overrepresent historical art forms to the exclusion of the contemporary Muslim art scenes. Some participants also reported that the West tends to view Muslim art through an overly political lens, leading funders and curators to value art only to the degree that the artist has faced prosecution or oppression. This could mean that current cultural exchanges are not representative of the art scenes of Muslim-majority countries but of the interests and agendas of American funders and audiences.

In general, there is consensus regarding the need for and potential impact of expanding networks of exchange and strengthening existing connections in this emerging field. In the text that follows we offer our own intervention: an index of important projects within the field, and an analysis of the interconnections among its members. The index and network analysis rely on a large data set of projects, generated both from archival and web research (and a prior commissioned report by Phillips [2013]), and a snowball sample initiated with the expert participants in the 2013 conference “Cultural Connections.” We identify some key observations from each component of this project before reviewing some of the challenges, obstacles, and opportunities in this emerging field.

Key Observations from the Index

A review of the projects included in the index yielded several observations about the types of cultural engagement occurring between artists from Muslim-majority countries and US audiences.

US-led initiatives are framed as “cultural bridges” between Muslims and the West.

The language of building bridges between cultures, specifically between “Western” and “Muslim” or “Arab” cultures, was deployed in the descriptions of several US-based projects. In contrast, projects based in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East were more likely to define their missions or project goals as regional or “south-south” exchanges (Phillips 2013).

Many online and virtual resources exist.

This research identified many online and virtual resources in the field. Outside of online networks and platforms for engagement, many projects had online components including exhibitions, archives, and publications. It was not always clear how these online resources and points of contact are being accessed or to what effect. Research on which audiences are being engaged by these online forums would be beneficial for a better understanding of the impact and range of these resources.

Projects lack sustainability.

Most of the projects and the funding to support them are short-lived or onetime initiatives. We identified a nearly equal number of onetime and repeating/ongoing artistic projects. Moreover, a large percentage of the repeating or ongoing projects occur abroad. Like Phillips (2013), we ask, did these initiatives cease to operate as a result of factors that affect all types of independent, cultural projects? Or was there something about the nature of the engagement that made them hard to sustain?

US-based projects and programs are relatively small in scale.

When we queried experts in this emerging field, most of the projects they nominated were local or regional in scale and attracted small to midsize audiences, unlike many of the international annual festivals that have been the focus of prior attempts to sketch the field (inter alia Phillips 2013). Single-artist residencies, one-night concerts or performances, and small-scale local festivals make up the majority of the projects nominated by survey participants. The reach of these initiatives is necessarily limited due to geographic scope and audience size. The dominance of small projects in their nominations may be a matter of chance, or it may reflect survey participants’ desire to see the focus of data collection shift from an exploration of the mainstream to an enumerating project with a broader mandate.

Key Observations from Mapping the Field

A listing of examples cannot aid funders who seek to identify their peers, and cannot help leaders of arts organizations to discover emerging sources of support. These enumerating attempts do not easily yield information on key questions, for example: Who are the biggest funders in the field, and how large is their influence? To what extent are the various players — funders, presenting organizations, and artists — interconnected? Are there artists, funders, projects, or host organizations that serve as “hubs” or centers of activity in the emerging field?

FIGURE 1. Funders linked by projects

The network visualizations in figures 1 and 2 depict connections between these projects based on some shared characteristic, such as having the same funder or participating in the same festival, exhibition, or performance. But because we depict all of the data at once, we can show how artists who shared the same funder are (or are not) connected to a second set of artists, also connected because of their shared funder. Consequently, we are able to identify both cliques and those entrepreneurial artists, funders, and events that participate in multiple cliques. In short, the visualizations permit our understanding of patterns within the data — patterns that would otherwise be hidden in complex detail.

The goal of our network analysis is to identify core and peripheral actors, to see where existing and emerging sources of support are located, and, perhaps most importantly, to understand the interconnections between artists, funders, and projects. Consequently, we designed a data set that included only those artists, curators/directors, funders, and corporate partners that contributed to at least two projects in the data set. In total, there were 1,644 unique funders of the projects included in the network analysis, and 860 unique artists or curators. But the visualizations in figures 1 and 2 show only the funders and artists who contributed to at least two of these projects.

FIGURE 2. Artists connected by projects

Funding for this emergent field is highly centralized around two primary funding sources.

Two foundations — the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts — support twice as many projects as any other funding source identified in these data. The majority of funders identified in these data supported four or fewer projects. This might suggest a relatively open field where no funder exerts disproportionate influence over which projects receive financial support. But a note of caution: the location of two other funders of note (the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the Ford Foundation) near the NEA indicates that the three funders support many of the same projects (see figure 1). The combined influence of the NEA, Ford, and the NYC-DCA may be cause for concern if we wish to see a field in which many different kinds of projects are supported by funders who develop particularistic tastes, specialize in certain forms of engagement, or support projects that might otherwise escape the attention of their funding peers.

The “flip” image, of projects connected by funders (available upon request), demonstrates that a core cluster of projects (Muslim Voices, Words without Borders, PEN World Voices, World Music Institute, Bond Street Theater, Asian Art Museum, Golden Thread) is attracting the support of multiple funders, while others are supported by many fewer funders.

Artistic projects that draw upon unique assemblages of artists and funders don’t appear to support “favorite” artists. There are no “art stars” here.

Looking at the collaboration of artists on projects (see figure 2), we see that there is no artist who is linked to many different projects. The most “popular” artists (El Saffar, Zughaib, Quraishi) only participate in three of the seventy-six projects we identified. A partial explanation for this lack of a “star system” can be found in the nature of these projects: there are no permanent or large exhibitions listed here — most of the projects were small and short in duration. But these data feature contemporary artists, and experts in the field report that permanent and large exhibitions tend to favor historical works. Additionally, the size and scope of the data may prevent us from identifying resource-rich artists. Given that our respondents tended to supply smaller and shorter-term projects, we may not be identifying the stars that exist.

Challenges and Opportunities

Before concluding, we review some of the key issues, challenges, and opportunities facing this emerging field.


Is a “Muslim artist” an artist who hails from a Muslim-majority country? An artist who practices Islam as a religion? One whose art is specifically created for a religious purpose or in response to a religious experience (Schneider 2009)? In many reports and initiatives, the terms Islamic and Muslim are used interchangeably (Schneider and Nelson 2008), but a lack of definitional specificity, differences in terminology, and varied opinions regarding where to draw boundaries are clear impediments to the recognition and expansion of the field.

Participants in the “Cultural Connections” conference, for example, felt that the term Muslim was more accurate than Islamic because it is more inclusive: while Islamic usually refers to religious conviction, Muslim is more inclusive of social and cultural identity and acknowledges the breadth and global spread of Muslim populations, not only in Muslim-majority countries but also in diaspora communities.

On the other hand, participants in a conference at the NYU Center for Dialogues (Bridging the Divide, 2009) struggled with the terms Muslim Art and Muslim Artists for this very same reason: they felt these terms collapsed the religious and the cultural and failed to represent the degree of diversity — of art and of social identities — within the Muslim world. Although many were uncomfortable with the terminology, some saw a degree of coherence within Islamic art, characterized, for instance, by the marriage of the visual and verbal. In the end, conference participants recommended the development of new terminology regarding Islam, Islamic art, and Muslim artists, although they did not offer concrete suggestions.

While different groups favor one set of terms over another, they all struggled to define exactly who and what falls under each label. Prior reports tend to simply acknowledge the complexity and insufficiency of these terms and move on. But it is important to note that despite the inevitable difficulties implied by the use of any category or label — which necessarily requires the lumping and splitting of groups in ways that overemphasize commonalities within and differences between — our ability to talk about and improve the field requires the use of a shared set of terms and understandings, however imperfect. In addition to acknowledging the insufficiency of existing terms, experts, artists, and audiences must work to put forward new and better suggestions.

Other Challenges

Funding is the most commonly cited impediment to success and expansion. This is especially true regarding long-term, sustained initiatives. Building trust and engagement across cultures takes time and organizations, and individuals must be prepared for long-term investments, initiatives, and programs in order to see real change (Schneider 2009).

The participants in the conference “Cultural Connections” identified a number of additional challenges facing actors in this emerging field, including the need to develop and exercise strong standards of curatorship, to identify the best use of technology, to advance professional development, to expand audience breadth, and to design effective evaluation methods.


Seen differently, current gaps in the field represent opportunities for expansion. For example, programs and initiatives focused on contemporary forms of Islamic art and hybrid or blended art forms represent an underfunded domain that could be expanded.

The Internet is hailed across all reports as a forum that presents the greatest opportunity for collaboration and cross-cultural engagement. A Brookings Institution report (Schneider 2009) suggests that members of the field seek to develop social networking tools and build sustainable cross-cultural communities of interest around various cultural events, for example. Suggestions regarding the form expansion should take include ensuring parity in exchanges by focusing on collaborations and co-creations, and focusing on funding for long-term (multiyear) projects and initiatives (over and above short-term or onetime events) in order to foster real and lasting change.

Suggestions for Facilitating Expansion

To facilitate expansion of the field, experts have called for improved research on the current state of activity and funding, new efforts to influence decision makers, advocacy to improve visa and travel regulations, as well as the expansion of residency and travel funds to promote cross-border connections and professional development.

Many of these suggestions require that practitioners, curators, and other leaders in the field develop the capacity to clearly articulate the values of cross-cultural artistic exchange. These might include the potential for reaching beyond global boundaries by conveying shared values across societies — the so-called universals of human experience. They might also tout the value of cross-cultural education, building understanding and overcoming misconceptions and stereotypes, the ability to reach and engage youth cultures, and the need to establish parity with other fields that foster cross-national exchange, such as science and technology.

In response to these calls for improved research on the current state of the field, our full report catalogs 121 artistic projects that facilitate artistic exchange between Americans and artists of Muslim-majority countries (from sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa [MENA], and central, south, and southeast Asia), and artists from those diasporas. The full report is not an exhaustive list of members of this emerging field. Instead, it is designed to reflect hot spots of activity that could be identified through a multimethod search that combined archival research with a survey sent to experts in the field. An exhaustive effort was made to identify all the funders and artists involved in those projects, and network analysis was used to identify the features of this diffuse field of arts engagement. In total, there were 1,644 unique funders of the projects included in the network analysis, and 860 unique artists or curators, by far the most extensive such indexing done to date. Our examination of the connections between these participants aids in the identification of resource-rich and resource-poor members within it, and the connections among its constitutive organizations, funders, and artists, and the projects they support.


The goal of our report was to survey the landscape of cultural exchanges between Muslim artists and US audiences in order to better understand opportunities and challenges in an emerging field of artistic work. Prior research prepared us to identify an unstructured, emerging artistic field, characterized by high degrees of heterogeneity between individuals, disciplines, organizations, funders, and projects. Leaders in the field had already identified the dearth of long-term programming and the funding to support it, and the warm embrace of Internet-mediated exchange by artists and audiences. In our research, we did find a large body of online and virtual resources, although it is not clear how or if these tools are being used by audiences, artists, or funders. As predicted, we found the field faces significant challenges in terms of its sustainability: most projects occur just once, and most funding is devoted to a single project. Moreover, the limited scale of most projects means their reach is limited to local audiences.

While we identified a large number of unique funders of these artistic projects, a small number exert a powerful combined influence. Members of the field might reasonably complain that artistic vibrancy is limited or harmed when a small number of “tastemakers” (however magnanimous) exerts such dominance. In contrast, we found no artistic stars attracting or hoarding resources, but we note that our research methods may have prevented us from identifying what stars exist.

Our hope is that this preliminary report provides a launching pad for more extensive research into this emerging field. Considering the stakes — that cultural exchange and the mutual regard that can result have an obvious (if indirect) influence over geopolitical matters — we think efforts should be made to thoroughly map the field and identify projects, artists, disciplines, curators, and the like who might especially benefit from more investment and attention.

Our gratitude extends to Will McConnell (Indiana University), who provided the network visualizations; Alberta Arthurs, Tom McIntyre, Michael DiNiscia, and Ruth Ann Stewart, who commissioned the report; and New York University’s Brademas Center and the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations for their support of this project.


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