Day II: Resources for International Exchange and the Ballad of American Arts

The jam-packed days of the 2009 Grantmakers in the Arts Conference are now in full swing, and yesterday’s was especially full to the brim. Our morning started bright and early at 8:00 with a selection of “breakfast roundtables”: informal topical discussions over croissants, yogurts, and coffee. I attended the Resources for International Exchange session, which was organized by Jennifer Goodale of the Asian Cultural Council and Trust for Mutual Understanding and facilitated by Carrie Thompson of the Trust for Mutual Understanding and Margaret Cogswell of the Asian Cultural Council.

An observer indicated that he wanted to “take the temperature” of the state of cultural exchange programs in the United States, and the response he got was that it is “freezing.” The major theme of the talk was increasing the pool of funding for cultural exchange. Historically, the support of foundations such as the Pew Charitable Trusts helped create a number of opportunities, but as those foundations moved on to other priorities, new sources of funding failed to take their place.  Furthermore, Arts International’s folding several years ago (it now exists as a program of the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, but only covers performing artists) contributed to a winnowing of opportunity in the area. There was a general sense that there may be some opportunity on the federal level with the advent of the new administration and its focus on openness with the international community. However, one participant noted that any changes to federal policy will likely take a while (as in a year or two, perhaps) to fully manifest. In the meantime, several participants were focused on rebuilding support for the international exchange grantmaking within the domestic funder community.

Two representatives from the country’s regional arts agencies participated in the conversation. The regionals already provide domestic touring support, and in some cases subsidize American artists to perform abroad. As a consortium, they recently published a report called Global Positioning Strategy for the Arts that urges leadership from the White House on the issue and points out the importance of experiencing other nations’ cultures in addition to sharing our own. Another report, from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, surveys trends in international exchange and cultural diplomacy programs in more depth.

A comparison between the United States’ and other countries approaches, facilitated by the presence of the Director of Performing Arts for the Consulate General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, is instructive. One participant reported encountering shock on the part of his counterparts in other countries that the US, with all of its money, had no funds to treat visiting artists with the same hospitality as countries with much smaller GDPs. Western European nations tend to have much more holistic and centralized cultural policies in which international exchange programs are coordinated with other artistic programming. For example, the Netherlands is actually becoming more interested in importing superb foreign artists to the country. This decision is the result of a government-commissioned publication, All that Dutch, that involved outreach to artistic professionals in other countries to get outsiders’ feedback on the Dutch arts scene. Word came back that the Dutch were getting complacent and needed an infusion of new ideas. Hence, the changes to cultural policy.

The session concluded with a resolve to get international exchange on the agendas of GIA and other funder affinity groups in a more formal way. The participants have already formed an email support group and plan to continue the conversation after the conference is over.


Following the no-bloggers-invited morning workshop, The Future and Our Role in Shaping It (whose synthesized results will be reported at Wednesday’s closing session), I sat in on Wynton Marsalis’s performance of The Ballad of American Arts over lunch. The performance is a reprise of Marsalis’s Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy for Arts Advocacy Day this year. That performance quickly achieved viral legend status when it first took place, and the Americans for the Arts’s Nina Ozlu Tunceli, introducing the piece, called it one of the “greatest honors of [her] career” to have been involved with it. I have little to say about the piece that hasn’t been said before; Marsalis blends poetry, music, and monologue into a compelling case for the essentialism of the arts. If you’re curious about it, I suggest you watch the video from the original performance here.  On top of the history lesson and the tight playing, Marsalis provided a lighter touch when his trombonist left the stage in the middle of the piece, apparently to catch another gig. Marsalis barked at him, “what, you don’t like what I’m saying?”, provoking many a confused giggle in the audience.

Back later with a report from the Arts, Culture & Community Economic Development off-site session!