Backyard Diplomacy: International Cultural Engagement & Local Arts Agencies (from Arts Watch)

Posted by Hannah Jacobson, Jan 11, 2012 0 comments

Hannah Jacobson

Quick -- point to Dublin, OH on a map.

How about Clinton County, MI; Douglasville, GA; or Missoula, MT? (Zero points if one of those cities is your hometown).

For those of us with a few years between elementary school geography and the present, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise if these seemingly arbitrary locations elude us.

Some residents of Taiwan, however, might find Dublin as easily as they would their own hometowns. It’s a similar story for students in Shiga, Japan with Clinton County; Denmark with Douglasville; and Neckargemün, Germany with Missoula.

In Americans for the Arts’ December webinar, produced in tandem with the special report entitled Backyard Diplomacy, we found out that cultural exchange—taking various forms of art that are from, inspired by, or headed to a distinctly foreign locale—is happening every day, in cities small and large, through local arts agencies (LAAs).

The major lesson? LAAs of any size and shape can and should feel empowered to take a field trip around the world.

By spotlighting just a few of the many amazing international programs that exist across the country, we learned that there are innumerable paths to get to international programming: there is no one funding formula, no perfect programming idea, and no singular mission.

Instead, international programming is as varied as the local agencies that foster it, and as creative.

Over 50 percent of LAAs are implementing these international programs on budgets of less than $25,000 a year; and even with a whopping 66 percent running on fewer than five full-time staff members, all kinds of LAAs are presenting unique opportunities for their communities to engage in culturally diverse offerings that help shape perspectives and shed new light.

Establishing partnerships catalyzes further interchange, as the extremely accomplished Miami-Dade County program demonstrates with the Karen Peterson Dancers.

This Miami-based, “mixed-ability” dance company, which includes professional dancers with and without wheelchairs, has had particularly moving results with their work in Montenegro.

Performing in a culture that hides disabled children in back rooms, the Karen Peterson Dancers have welcomed entire Montenegrin communities to their shows, and, through workshops, encouraged these children to come out of their hiding places and embrace themselves onstage. The success of these programs rests on the support of agencies such as the Miami-Dade Cultural Council, which provided a grant for the dancers.

The Dublin Arts Council, meanwhile, has less of a financial emphasis in its international programming, but no less heart: the Riverboxes project, in which community members leave impressions of the natural environment in boxes along the Scioto River, has now been duplicated and enthusiastically embraced in Taiwan—all thanks to the efforts of the arts council’s Taiwanese exchange interns, and the relationships they formed in Dublin.

So if it’s not about money and it’s not about staff size, what’s to stop any local arts agency from creating inroads into other cultures, and bringing diverse perspectives home?

Only the limits of our own backyards—and, it turns out, those backyards can extend halfway across the world.

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