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Feature Story:

Art in Embassies


By Gwen Berlin
The author is the director of the Art in Embassies Program.


If a picture is worth a thousand words, the Art in Embassies Program is telling the world volumes about U.S. history and culture.

Contemporary hand-blown glass formed into sinuous folds of brilliant color. Quilted pinwheels, coaxed from fabric scraps by nimble fingers faithfully preserving a rich tradition of female artistic expression. Thick, shiny black paint applied with a palette knife to raw canvas in expressive calligraphic strokes.

Art transcends the barriers of language and culture. Regardless of its medium, style or subject matter, American art is universal in its appeal and eloquently depicts the tradition of diversity and individuality of expression that American artists have the freedom to convey.

And if the old saying about a picture being worth a thousand words holds true, State's Art in Embassies Program is telling the world volumes about U.S. history and culture.

The program's first director, Nancy Kefauver, began AIEP in 1964 with the modest expectation of "doing something constructive about those bare white walls in the embassies abroad." Since then, AIEP has evolved into a sophisticated program that manages more than 5,000 original works of art by U.S. citizens ranging from 18th-century portraiture to contemporary art and valued at more than $70 million. These works are exhibited worldwide in about 170 U.S. Embassy residences.

The program's curators, registrars and administrative personnel operate under the Administration Bureau's Office of Foreign Buildings Operations. They're involved in everything from guiding ambassadors in developing collection themes to locating the finest available examples and securing them through lending agreements with artists, galleries, museums, corporations, foundations and private collectors. In addition, staff members use floor plans, photographs and videotapes of the representational rooms where the works will be displayed to determine the number and size of works of art needed, as well as their specific placement.

Finally, the staff arranges for the artworks to be crated and transported, then installed by professional art handlers, post carpentry staffs and, in some cases, the AIEP staff.

Collections displayed through the program average about eight to 15 works of art and take about six months to plan and install. They remain at post throughout an ambassador's tenure.

Successful collections are the direct result of close cooperation between the ambassador, curator and post personnel, who play a prominent role in the collection's timely delivery, installation and care. This collaboration ensures that collections reflect the ambassador's interests and vision, while respecting the host country's cultural and political climate.

The greatest strengths of the Art in Embassies Program are the generosity and diversity of its lenders. Representing communities throughout the United States, they become partners in acknowledging and supporting the achievements of America's artists and in promoting an awareness of U.S. cultural history.

One of the most unusual works of art in the collection is "Untitled (Portrait of Dad)" by Felix Gonzales Torres. This conceptual work boasts 175 pounds of Chicago-made Peerless white mint candies, representing the weight of the artist's father. The candies are arranged however the exhibitor -- in this case, U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Paul Cejas -- prefers. In Moscow, Ambassador James Collins' exhibition, "Faces of America," compares the multicultural, multiethnic makeups of both the United States and Russia through portraiture. The artists range from recognizable to emerging photographers, painters and sculptors, including two Russian-American artists.

Secretary Madeleine Albright has called for new ways to draw support for U.S. foreign policy objectives, both domestically and overseas. The Art in Embassies Program is responding by including educational outreach in its mission. It is developing "public diplomacy" educational initiatives geared to host country citizens of all ages.

One program will use currently displayed AIEP art collections as catalysts for promoting a desire to learn about U.S. democratic ideals. Each collection catalog, produced by the post under AIEP staff guidance, will become a learning tool for the program.

AIEP wants to put the works of art to work to stimulate critical thinking, cultural comparisons and dialogue. What better emissaries do we have than our artists, who have the freedom to explore, to experiment and even to criticize our culture? Who better to celebrate our stories through visual history lessons?

The universality of art and its central role in every culture makes it a natural complement to the traditional tools of diplomacy. As Secretary Albright observed, "The Art in Embassies Program provides a unique opportunity for the U.S. government to share America's cultural heritage by exhibiting works of art depicting the stories of our history, our land and our diverse people. This outstanding commitment, supported by the Department of State, promotes art in all its forms as a vital component of the freedom of expression."


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