Valuing Cultural Diplomacy and Engagement for the 21st Century (from ArtsWatch)
I have a cat that is not quite one-year old. This seemingly has absolutely nothing at all to do with the subject of the state of public and cultural diplomacy in 2009, except that his habit of waking me pre sun-up when the birds start to sing by delivering a scratchy tongue to the nostrils, meant that on the morning when President Obama delivered his groundbreaking speech on Islam, I was in the kitchen making coffee, trying to remember why I like cats at all, and watching our President live, from Cairo, make history yet again.
Fortunately for my cat, I quickly became captivated by the seriousness of the message, and the profoundness of the moment. It seemed important to forget that it was five o’clock in the morning and the coffee hadn’t kicked in yet, to listen to a speech that was premised on seeking a “…new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect…” No small task.
To demonstrate that respect, the President made a point of acknowledging the contributions of Islam to history and to the development of civilization today. He of course talked about Islam’s contributions to science, technology, mathematics and medicine. But in the next breath, he also talked about how Islamic culture has “…given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation…”—all sentiments that received wild applause from those gathered that day at Cairo University.
What struck me at that moment was how natural it was to acknowledge the rightful place of the arts in that context, among the fields of science, technology, economies, and religion. Odd that in matters of public policy, we still struggle to make those connections effectively here at home.
It is not difficult to understand why the arts are powerful contributors to public and cultural diplomacy. By engaging individuals on a personal level, the arts can transcend political, social and racial barriers. They offer universal “languages” by which commonalities among peoples are revealed. They often are the only safe gathering ground where stories can be shared and long term understandings forged.
President Obama’s platform for the arts included a strong position on the inclusion of the arts in federal policies on public diplomacy. It is not unrealistic to assume that discussions of meaningful investment and reform in how the United States participates as a global citizen of the world will include the arts. It is unrealistic however, to assume that making change will come easy.
The challenges that have impeded the role of the arts in public diplomacy still exist. If anything, they have become more extreme by the impacts of 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as by the recession. Meaningful change will only come about by harnessing the creative energy, innovative thinking and sheer collective will of public and private sector leaders and citizens.
The time is right for re-committing to the role of the arts and culture in helping to build global community and understanding through effective engagement at all levels. In order to understand the possibilities that exist for doing this now, it is important to understand what has come before.
Fortunately, a new resource for building this understanding has now been released.
To help arts advocates better understand and navigate the current policy environment, the first of several new tools for making the case for the value of U.S.-based cultural diplomacy and cultural exchange is now available on the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation New Initiative-International Cultural Engagement website. The Robert Sterling Clark Foundation has commissioned ground-breaking research on public and private support for cultural exchange after 9/11, which also examines the challenges, successes, smart practices and trends of engagement by participating arts and cultural organizations.
The first of these tools is the Timeline of U.S. Public and Cultural Diplomacy 1999-2009. The timeline provides a fascinating journey through the historical milestones in U.S. cultural diplomacy—the highs and the lows. Organized by year and providing information in several categories including Appointments and Political Events, U.S. Government Initiatives, Legislation and Policy, Institutions, Investments and Partnerships, Resources, Reports and Conferences, it includes links to websites and reports, which collectively provide a comprehensive overview of America’s recent investments in international cultural diplomacy pre- and post-9/11.
Building upon the numerous dialogues, research and convenings that are taking place on this issue, Americans for the Arts in partnership with the Redford Center at the Sundance Preserve will be discussing the role of the arts in building the 21st century global community at the annual National Arts Policy Roundtable, September 24 – 26. Now in its fourth year, the Roundtable provides a forum of informed discussion where high level public and private sector leaders come together to address an issue critical to advancing American arts and culture, and recommend public sector policies, private sector practices, and research necessary to move from thought to action.
Members of the arts community are invited to help shape this dialogue by letting us know how your work is impacting the global community:
- What programs are you supporting or engaging in?
- What factors are impeding and/or enhancing your work?
- What is the one thing you would change in the current policy environment that would truly help the arts achieve their full potential as a catalyst for building bridges of understanding among the peoples of the world?
I still am not fond of getting woken up at 4 a.m., but I’m willing to concede that the cat did me a favor. We are entering a whole new era for redefining the role of the United States on the world stage—and the full script has yet to be written. To expand a bit on the President’s message to the students and people at Cairo University, I am excited about the prospect of our country intentionally forging new beginnings between the United States and peoples around the world, based on “mutual interest and mutual respect”. I for one can think of no finer messengers than our artists and arts groups, nor as effective a message as one that is delivered through dance, music, theatre, poetry, visual art, architecture, media or design. It is time to re-engage our public officials and private sector supporters in valuing the arts not only as the cultural pillars of the past, but as the building blocks for global communities of the future.