Thursday, October 15, 2009

Cultural Diplomacy

There's been a bit of debate on The Huffington post this month regarding cultural diplomacy (one of my favorite concepts), so I thought I'd share it with you and give you my perspective, and hopefully get some responses from you!

The kick-start article here was this one, posted by Micheal Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.  His take is that traditional cultural diplomacy, in the form of state supported performing arts groups touring abroad, is not effective.  What he's been working on, since his years at the Kennedy Center, is a new kind of cultural diplomacy, in which arts managers go abroad and teach marketing, fundraising, and other best practices employed here, to their foreign counterparts.

The response blog written by Karen Brooks Hopkins of the Brooklyn Academy of Music argues that sending the managers without the performers/artists is like "sending a cookbook without any food" and further comments that "Americans are always trying to manage everyone and everything."  Her viewpoint is that it's the artists who truly express the underlying humanity that connects us all, and that this element is missing when managers are just teaching best business practices abroad.

I really feel that there is value in both of these approaches.  As someone who's had the opportunity to serve as a cultural ambassador as a performer, I agree with Ms. Brooks Hopkins, that there is an intrinsic value in sharing art with audiences abroad.  As a realist, I understand that funding performing arts tours abroad is prohibitively expensive.  For this reason, I support Michael Kaiser's stance that what is most effective, (and cost effective) right now is to train arts managers abroad.

During college, I performed in an original American Musical for 1,000 people in the oldest theater in Russia.  As a performer the experience was life changing, but I feel that the performance itself had the least impact on the community.  What was most amazing to me were the Master Classes my company took with Russian theater students.  For an entire semester, both groups had worked on two pieces, Chekhov's Three Sisters  and Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie.  As groups we were able to show the work we had done, and exchange our expressions of the same pieces.  Later in the class, we put some of our students in scenes with some of the Russian students.  The synergy was explosive, and it was amazing to watch.  Did I mention the language barrier?  Yea, no one in my class spoke Russian, and no one in their class spoke English.  We were performing and viewing bilingual theater, and it worked! 

Maybe it has to do with being young, but those moments really bonded us in a short time.  As students and performers we held a common bond, and we got together on our own time and interacted without translators.  We understood one another through our art.

It is my opinion that the exchange of managers is a wonderful way to collaborate within the constraints of a budget.  I also feel that it leaves room for foreign arts communities to develop and present their own art.  However, I think that whenever possible, the most effective form of cultural diplomacy is when managers and artists from different countries, cultures, and backgrounds work together.  Instead of exporting our performances and importing performances from others, let's hold extended exchange programs where companies can develop together and create a common culture of collaboration.

I should probably start fundraising now.....

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