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Cultural Diplomacy: Engaging a Changing World

On March 7, 2011 at the TimesCenter, Alliance for the Arts presented an Arts Forum on “Cultural Diplomacy: Engaging A Changing World.”

What is cultural diplomacy? Vishakha N. Desai, speaker and President of the Asia Society, explained the differences and connections between cultural exchange, engagement and diplomacy. Despite their important differences, these are not mutually exclusive concepts and they all cross over into the public and private sectors.

In a cultural exchange, there is a physical exchange across borders of artists, performers, and cultural products. The New York City Ballet famously stepped behind the iron curtain in 1962 to perform for Soviet Russia. Cultural engagement refers to the longer-term project of building lasting relationships. Cultural diplomacy has the strongest governmental element to its definition. Efforts in cultural diplomacy connect cultures to state efforts. Under the Bush administration, cultural diplomacy, still within the ambit of the U.S. Information Agency, was used as a one-way promotion of democracy.

Now, U.S. cultural diplomacy is spearheaded by U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs [ECA]. Joining the discussion at the TimesCenter was Maura M. Pally, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Professional and Cultural Exchanges. Pally also discussed cultural diplomacy at the Dance/NYC Mid-Season Symposium on February 26th.

Recently the ECA sent a hip hop group to perform in Yemen. It was a great success, and Yemeni youth turned out for the performances where they might not have turned out for ballet or jazz. However, the ECA faced criticism from certain political groups on the home front after lyrics criticizing the government were found in one of the artist’s older songs.

The ECA uses taxpayer funds to support its exchange programs, and so is held to high account by the public. Not everyone in the U.S. public will feel that certain cultural movements here represent the country. Nor will everyone in the U.S. government will feel that way, either. The arts can be subversive, and they can be used to criticize the government. It can backfire if the government expects to use artists to support a singular message.

Despite arguments as to what is showcased here and abroad, sharing arts and culture through cultural diplomacy helps build and maintain relationships between different cultures. Cuban-born ballerina with ABT Xiomara Reyes had told audience members at the Dance/NYC symposium that art forms like dance help break barriers between peoples because they expose the artists’ souls. She recounted how seeing American ballet dancers from America tour in Cuba had helped her understand America and influenced her decision to move there.