Longfellow, the great American poet, once said, “Art and poetry will not till our lands, nor freight our ships, nor fill our granaries and our coffers, but they will enrich the heart, freight the understanding and make up the garnered fullness of the mind.” Since the birth of our nation, America’s ever-changing democracy has itself been defined in significant measure by art and architecture. The arts are both mirror and maker of our complex culture, and have come to define a viable channel for diplomacy by uniting people of diverse geographies and across the various political spectra.
Of course, our country’s official channel for diplomacy is the United States Department of State. It is the vehicle through which our government has engaged in the art of cultural diplomacy over the years. Retired Foreign Service officers well remember when our government sent jazz musicians, painters, writers and actors around the world to combat Soviet Cold War-era claims that the U.S. was a cultural wasteland. Since then, the U.S. federal government’s cultural efforts ebbed and flowed, re-surging in the wake of September 11th, when attention to and funding for cultural diplomacy efforts more than tripled.
In addition to the official efforts of the State Department, private initiative has done much to bolster uneven federal budgets and garner public attention to the important role that culture plays in diplomacy. In fact, due to the tremendous creativity of a few generous visionaries, a unique public-private partnership emerged which both amplifies America’s great creativity and furthers our government’s official diplomatic endeavors. That public private partnership is known as the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies (FAPE).
As the leading non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the United States image abroad through American art, FAPE arose in 1986, and works with the State Department to contribute fine art to U.S. embassies around the world. FAPE has donated work by more than 145 preeminent American artists to over 70 countries - with the confidence that their works of art enhance our country’s cultural diplomacy efforts throughout the world. Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “Let me commend FAPE for its unflagging devotion to promoting the democratic values, freedom of expression, and creativity exemplified by American art and artists.”
After the U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998, the State Department’s Overseas Buildings Operations set out to construct more than 50 safe and secure U.S. embassies, and asked FAPE to provide major permanent site-specific installations at these buildings. From this request, FAPE’s Art in New Embassies Program was born. The program is an unprecedented and highly collaborative effort among a non-profit organization, embassy architects, the State Department, and artists in order to integrate the artist’s work within the building’s design.
During my posting at the U.S. Embassy in Canada at the turn of the millennium, I had the honor of having a front row seat for FAPE’s new embassy initiative. Through collaboration with the architect of the new embassy, David Childs, and one of America’s pre-eminent sculptors, Joel Shapiro, FAPE was able to commission a monumental work for the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa, Canada.
The forty-foot-high bronze sculpture, entitled “Conjunction”, is a magnificent contribution to that nation’s capitol’s landscape, and it is an enduring symbol of the friendship between our two countries. Mr. Shapiro said of the work, “I wanted to make a piece that was really enthusiastic and optimistic, and about possibility. And my work is not easy. I don’t think it has a simple storyline. It is rooted in abstraction and rooted in 20th century notions of sculpture going into the 21st.”
In her dedication of the piece in 1999, then First Lady of the United States, Hillary Clinton, commented, “We hope that ‘Conjunction’ will always represent the relationships not only between our nations, but among our peoples and cause all of us to think a little harder about what we want to reach for in the years, and certainly in the new century to come.”
It is undeniable that art and architecture are laden with aesthetic, emotional, political and cultural value. The way our embassies abroad are constructed conveys a strong message to the international community about American values and priorities. While emphasis must be placed on security, our embassies are the international face of our country and must reflect a total view of who we are as a nation – a country that is freedom loving, welcoming and ever evolving.
In the same way, art that is placed in embassies is not simply a material good but a form of communication transcending language, political barriers and historic differences. President George W. Bush said in 2001 that FAPE “… offers a treasure chest to the world by providing opportunities around the globe to view at our embassies the outstanding work of so many American artists…The world gains a deeper understanding of our democracy through the compelling expression of these gifted creators, emissaries and dreamers.”
Nowhere is this transcendent quality of art better seen than in the work of Elyn Zimmerman at the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. For this piece, Elyn searched the U.S. for a type of stone indigenous to Tanzania to craft her six-piece sculpture -- Assembly of Friends. Each element is eight-feet tall and their flatness and thinness, as well as their striking silhouettes and outlines, were inspired by shapes used in traditional African art. Upon installation, Elyn’s work, like the Shapiro sculpture in Ottawa, became a conversation piece not only for Ambassadors of both countries—but for the community at large, yearning to learn not only about Elyn’s experience with working with a native material, but also about the sentiment behind it.
In all cases, the belief is that when an artist draws inspiration and integrates the local host-culture, the work takes on a spirit of dialogue particular to cultural diplomacy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently noted, “As our nation and world confront the multiple challenges of our time, effective communication is imperative. Bypassing written and spoken words, art expresses the human spirit and human creativity, connecting all citizens on a deeper level.”
By capturing the poetry of daily life and expressing creativity without censorship, cultural diplomacy efforts communicate that our society values the democratic tenet of free expression. Whether it is contemporary American artists, jazz musicians, ballet dancers, actors or singers – cultural diplomacy initiatives showcase a very real side of American culture – one that celebrates creative expression, and enhances the opportunity to engage the world community. At a time when two wars rage and our safety has proven intricately related to our world-image, art and architecture reminds us that we are all part of a common human experience – one that shares the daily sentiments of life beyond politics, governments and national borders.