Michael Kaiser’s Cultural Diplomacy: Would a ‘Pepsi Ballet’ Help U.S. Artists?

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Michael KaiserIn the Clyde Fitch Report’s Arts Advocacy Update of Feb. 26, 2009 (LXXVIII), commentary was included on a gathering in Florida of approximately 70 people “representing a broad spectrum of public diplomacy stakeholders and practitioners” were calling on the incoming Obama Administration, along with Congress, “to reinvent and restore public diplomacy as a vital and viable element of ‘Smart Power’.”

The report was the result of a conference, held Jan. 30 and Feb. 1, called “The Elements of Smart Power: Re-Inventing Public Diplomacy.” It was sponsored by a variety of foundations and think tanks. A press release on the event contained two interesting paragraphs:

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“We need to turn from using words like ‘branding’, ‘advertising’ and ‘marketing’ to using words like ‘authenticity’, ‘credibility’ and ‘trust'”, said Tara Sonenshine, a former Deputy Communications Director at the National Security Council who helped to develop the meeting agenda.

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“In the immediate aftermath of the November elections, President Obama is basking in a public glow around the world. As a result, many are ready to look at the United States in a new light,” said Doug Wilson, a former senior official at the Pentagon and the now-defunct USIA, who led the meeting in his capacity as a Board Member of the Howard Gilman Foundation. “But that glow is the public diplomacy equivalent of low prices at the gas pump: someday it may fade, and it can be neither an excuse nor a substitute for putting in place the public diplomacy measures necessary to address America’s long-term security interests….”

It is this overall context that Michael Kaiser’s recent Huffington Post essay, “How Helpful Is Cultural Diplomacy?” must be considered. As previously noted on this site, Kaiser is arguably the arts industry’s greatest contemporary visionary and certainly one of its most unquestioned champions. The thesis of the essay is that traditional modes of U.S. cultural diplomacy — sending a ballet company to a foreign capital, for example — is not only a too-expensive proposition for these economically and political straightened times, but aside from the monetary aspect of such endeavors, they are too ineffective in the long run to justify the effort. Kaiser’s argument is framed as a set of interrogatories:

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Do we need state-supported tours by American performing arts groups when without federal funding so many of our performers and performing arts groups are appearing all over the world, when American architects are designing high profile buildings internationally and when American artists are featured in the great museums?

Does sending a symphony orchestra to play for a thousand of the most powerful people in the capital of another nation truly affect the way our nation is viewed?

While Kaiser argues against cultural diplomacy in the way it has been practiced, on and off, since the end of World War II, he is not suggesting that America roll up its cultural carpet and bring our talent back home. His idea is that cultural diplomacy must be reconstituted, reframed, reimagined and reimplemented to increase our bang for the buck:

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…Given our reliance on private funding, Americans have a great deal to teach abroad. We can teach how we build sponsorship by corporations and especially individuals. We can teach how we use marketing to expand the reach of our arts organizations. We can teach the importance of long-term program planning for building new sources of support.

….arts leaders now are attempting to support their organizations in new ways. They are grateful for the help they have received from the Kennedy Center, America’s national cultural center. This gratitude extends to the governmental leaders of the nations in which we teach; it is not unusual for us to meet with mayors, ministers of culture and even presidents and prime ministers when we work abroad. They are all impressed that Americans care not just to export their own culture, but to see to the health of arts organizations in their country and around the world. (And because we teach over a period of years, and build strong relationships in every country, the impact is far greater and longer-term than for any one concert.) The U.S. gains immense prestige and good will. And the cost is so small: one airline ticket and a hotel room.

…maybe the State Department could support a program that allows other American arts organizations to teach abroad. (The money saved could be given to arts organizations to invest in programming, marketing and touring.)

If one reads between the lines of Kaiser’s essay, however, he seems to suggest that the nation’s directly encourage private industry to financially support what the government cannot. Notice, for example, the “Given our reliance on private funding” clause that began the excerpt up above.

This raises the question of whether private industry — what Kaiser is referring to when he mentions “how we build sponsorship by corporations and especially individuals” — should be in the business of participating financially in cultural diplomacy, and whether American artists would fare better or worse under such a scenario. It’s difficult to imagine, for one thing, how this plays out: Would the U.S. government permit Pepsi, say, to brand itself as part of a performing-arts tour to foreign countries in exchange for sponsorship support? When the State Department pays for a visit by American artists to another land, the artists are representing the U.S. as a nation. When Pepsi pays for a visit by American artists to another land, the artists are representing, well, who?

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Kaiser’s piece leaves unclear how a fundamental rethinking of the economics of cultural diplomacy would manage to touch the hearts and minds of foreign citizens who are not the elite — individuals being reached under the present set of circumstances. He asks an apt question — “And are we really influencing the citizens of a nation when we send performing groups to entertain the elite?” — but doesn’t detail how corporate or individual sponsorships for cultural diplomacy would, indeed, influence anyone other than the elite.

Kaiser’s essay is another facet of a greater dilemma: how the national economic disaster we have endured for the last two years will profoundly affect how the U.S. operates both at home and abroad, and how it may necessitate painful alterations in our geopolitical approaches. In truth, there are no good answers. At least Kaiser is putting the subject on the table and opening things up for a wide-ranging discussion. One aspect of that discussion must be this: If the way in which cultural diplomacy is funded and organized is to change, how can we ensure artists will benefit — or at least not become exploited? Certainly artist-exploitation is not an American cultural export we should aim to provide.

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