Enriching the Arts through International Cultural Exchange

Guiomar Ochoa and Michael Orlove

The National Endowment for the Arts’ International Activities office works in partnership with other government agencies and the private sector to support the extension of US arts globally and to enhance the cultural experience of American artists and audiences. The goal of our office is to foster international creative exchange, deepen understanding across cultures, and create ties between US artists and communities and counterparts abroad. International arts exchange is fundamental because it creates an environment for genuine compromise and conciliation, enhances the education of all citizens, fosters tolerance of diverse cultures within our country, and prepares us to contribute both artistically and economically within the global society. Valuable cultural exchange is mutual and offers the opportunity for deeper and prolonged commitment between artists and encourages responsible global citizenry.

We fund three main programs. US Artists International helps to ensure that the impressive range of expression and creativity of the US performing arts is represented at art markets abroad. Southern Exposure: Performing Arts of Latin America supports the presentation of dance, music, and theater artists and ensembles from Latin America in US communities that have little access to this work. Our newest initiative, Performing Arts Discovery, will provide a platform to connect US artists, producers, and arts organizations with presenters and curators from abroad.

The primary work of the International Activities office falls into two broad areas: (1) the development and management of partnerships for international engagement, and (2) cultural dialogues that advance US representation in international organizations such as UNESCO, the Organization of American States, and the International Federation of Arts Councils and Cultural Agencies. In partnership with the State Department, we convene FACIE (Federal Advisory Committee on International Exhibitions) panels, which make recommendations for official US presentations at the Venice Visual Arts and Architecture Biennials. Additionally, we have a memorandum of understanding with the Foreign Service Institute whereby we organize special cultural events during training sessions for foreign service officers and meet with cultural attachés and public affairs officers about the NEA and US arts support system. We are also the cultural point of contact for State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program and meet with close to two hundred international artists and arts managers per year.

As the sole source of support available for American artists invited to perform at art markets abroad, US Artists International is one of our most significant programs. The program contributes to the creative development of American artists by providing opportunities for the exchange of ideas and practices with their international colleagues and helps to sustain their careers through exposure to new audiences and access to international marketplaces. Exchange and working within communities are vital for both American and international artists.

Given the importance of exchange in our ever-growing and increasingly complex global community, we want to highlight two impressive initiatives, facilitated by our philanthropy colleagues, who are investing in this important work. Creative Fusion, created by the Cleveland Foundation, is a residency program for international artists. Each year organizations in Cleveland’s professional arts sector receive grants from the foundation to host up to six artists. The second initiative is the International Connections Fund, created by the MacArthur Foundation, which supports two-way artistic exchanges that benefit Chicago arts and culture nonprofits and their peer organizations abroad.

Creative Fusion: A Midsize American City Enters the Global Stage

If a midsize American city wants to reposition itself and forge a distinct cultural identity, what better strategy than to connect its cultural sector with artists from abroad? This was the founding premise for Creative Fusion, an urban-based, community-engaged residency program for international artists developed by the Cleveland Foundation in 2010. The program offers foreign artists a three-month residency in Cleveland, spring or fall. Each residency period features up to six artists from cultures not well represented in Cleveland’s professional arts sector.

Artists are nominated for the program by a panel of international experts who are briefed on the community-engagement element of the residency. Nominated artists apply via a web-based application site. Cultural organizations select artists from this vetted pool and apply for a grant to serve as their host and creative home.

To date nearly fifty artists, from countries as different as Nepal, Chile, Vietnam, Armenia, Iran, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Taiwan, South Africa, Senegal, South Korea, and India, have spent three months in Cleveland embedded within its cultural sector, working with Cleveland artists, sharing their culture with the community, and getting to know this heartland American city.

These residencies have had real impact. Chilean printmaker Ivan Lecaros credits his 2013 residency at Zygote Press and the mentorship provided by Zygote’s director Liz Maugans with greatly expanding his own skills and the success of his studio in Santiago: “I can’t describe well enough what Liz did for me. It’s weird that someone you worked with for just three months can cause such an impression, but the fact is that all I am now and all I have achieved since I came back is due to her absolutely brilliant advice and teachings.” The benefits were reciprocal, according to Maugans: “Working alongside Ivan helped us see the merits of what Zygote does every day. We saw a complete stranger engage in fresh and profound ways with the diverse communities that exist in our own backyard.” Strong connections were made, and several local artists have subsequently traveled to Santiago for short residencies in Lecaros’s studio.

Meng-Hsuan Wu, a multimedia artist from Taiwan, found her “community art soul” through Creative Fusion. She says, “My art was at a turning point. I had difficulty connecting to communities for my work when luck brought me to Cleveland. I was stunned by how smooth a community-based art project can be progressed through community connections. This experience broadened the directions of my art journey.” Meng worked with inner-city youth, the elderly, and the blind during her residency. She relocated to Cleveland last year and now works for her host, the Rainey Institute, a multiarts center in an inner-city neighborhood.

The Cleveland Foundation is committed to this initiative. While the benefits to its foreign visitors are clear, the locals have reaped rich rewards as well. More than fifteen thousand young people have interacted at deep and authentic levels with Creative Fusion artists — creative individuals whose worldviews and experiences are vastly different from theirs. The city’s cultural organizations have found new audiences for their work, and many of the local artists now have international connections, collaborators, and friends.

The International Connections Fund: Sharing Chicago with the World

Chicago is a global city with citizens from many countries who bring with them their language, culture, and artistic traditions. The city’s economy benefits from international relationships and a steady flow of visitors from throughout the world. While the city’s largest arts organizations tour frequently and have international reputations, many smaller and neighborhood-based groups, some representing cultures of other countries, do not have the opportunity for cross-cultural exchange for their staff or audiences.

The MacArthur Foundation’s International Connections Fund supports international exchanges that strengthen the arts community in Chicago and bolster its profile worldwide. The fund makes grants ranging from $5,000 to $50,000, which support current MacArthur arts and culture grantees seeking to collaborate with peer organizations abroad. These grants are not intended to support Chicago organizations solely to tour internationally or to present work from other countries in Chicago. Instead, the fund supports two-way artistic exchanges that result in new work, joint performances, and benefits to Chicago arts organizations, their international collaborators, and their audiences. For example, the Chicago Human Rhythm Project (CHRP) established ongoing residencies with Brazil’s Garagem da Dança and Argentina’s Che Malambo. This exchange led to an invitation to CHRP’s artistic director LaneAlexander to design an American tap dance curriculum for the entire country of Brazil.

The MacArthur Foundation initiated the International Connections Fund in 2008 during the economic downturn, which disproportionately hurt small arts organizations. During these difficult times and in the years since, the fund has provided organizations, such as the Anima-Young Singers of Greater Chicago, with an opportunity to grow creatively and serve broader audiences. The Anima-Young Singers collaborated with Native choirs in British Columbia and Alaska to perform new works honoring North American, including Native, cultures. After the trip, which included six collaborative performances, the Chicago group was invited to perform its North American repertoire for additional events, including the American Choral Directors’ fall conference in 2014, providing an unprecedented opportunity to share their experiences and garner recognition.

The grants have also resulted in some unexpected opportunities. The Chicago Jazz Philharmonic traveled to Cuba, where it worked with the Instituto Superior de Arte in writing and performing musical histories of Afro-Cuban and jazz music. The Chicago musicians were in Cuba in October 2014 when Presidents Obama and Castro reopened relations between the two countries. The Philharmonic captured video footage of the moment they and their Cuban partners heard the news together, which was widely viewed over many television news networks all over the world. This unexpected publicity has drawn attention to both the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic and Cuba’s Instituto Superior de Arte.

Since 2008, the International Connections Fund has made ninety-five grants, totaling $3,077,000, to support 118 exchanges with fifty-three countries and Puerto Rico, allowing hundreds of Chicago artists to travel abroad and hundreds more international artists to travel to Chicago. The fund strengthens Chicago’s artistic community by raising the international profile of its arts organizations, providing the opportunity to create new works, and contributing to Chicago’s reputation as an international center for arts and culture.

Creative Fusion and the International Connections Fund are two remarkable and compelling examples of why international exchange is essential to the arts in America. Cultural exchanges deepen understanding among participants and create ties between US artists and communities and their counterparts abroad. They contribute to the creative development of artists by providing opportunities for the exchange of ideas and practices with their colleagues in other countries and help to sustain their careers through exposure to new audiences. The National Endowment for the Arts remains committed to this work, and we hope this article serves as a primer for further conversation and collaboration within the international arena.

We would like to extend our gratitude to Kathleen Cerveny, director of Institutional Learning and Arts Initiatives at the Cleveland Foundation, and Elspeth Revere, vice president of Media, Culture, and Special Initiatives of the MacArthur Foundation, for their contributions to this article.