Opinion

US Ambassadors Get Awesome Art Through Embassy Program

A view of Ellsworth Kelly's “Study for Black Ripe” at the Winfield House (image via nytimes.com)

At the Winfield House in London, the US ambassador to the United Kingdom, Louis B. Susman, and wife Marjorie are using their diplomatic powers for artistic good, showcasing modern American artists in the Victorian-style Neo-Georgian space. What’s interesting about this display of American artistic diplomacy, with Mark Rothko, Ellsworth Kelly and Brice Marden all leaving their mark, is that it was made possible by a US State Department program called ART in the Embassies, a project that works to place American art and artists abroad on a large scale. This includes offering travel fellowships, commissioning art installations and bringing foreign artists to the US.

In the New York Times article on the Susmans’ art enthusiasm, Marjorie notes that it wasn’t just the couples’ own art that fills the 35 rooms of the diplomatic residency. She worked to organize loans from museums, dealers and collectors to fill out the space, creating not just a collection but almost a curated exhibition of late American modernism.

The loans, from sources like the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, major collector Agnes Gund and the commercial Pace gallery, were organized through ART in Embassies, whose stated mission is to “provide international audiences with a sense of the quality, scope, and diversity of American art and culture through the accomplishments of some of our most important citizens, our artists.” In 2001, ART placed over 245 works in US spaces abroad and commissioned 12 major pieces.

Ellsworth Kelly's “Berlin Totem” (2008), at the Berlin Embassy, was commissioned with FAPE (image via nytimes.com)

“ART has about $4.5 million to spend each year for its permanent collections,” notes the New York Times, and “the total value of art on loan to the embassy program is estimated at $200 million.” The recently constructed American embassy in Beijing includes works by artists both Chinese and American, from Ellsworth Kelly and Martin Puryear to Yun-Fei Ji and Cai Guo-Qiang.

Along with ART in the Embassies, other programs also employ the artists themselves, commissioning works for display in other countries. The Foundation for Art & Preservation in Embassies (FAPE) works with artists to place works internationally. One such example was a mural by painter Dorothea Rockburne, now headed for Jamaica. Rockburne has also chosen to donate her work as a gift to Jamaica.

A new initiative by the State Department in conjunction with the Bronx Museum gives artists the ability to work directly abroad. In 2011 the museum’s smART Power will send an initial group of 15 US artists to different countries abroad to work with local artists and young people to carry out their projects. The selected artists will be announced soon, so we’re certainly staying tuned.

It’s a lot of American art going abroad, right? What makes these programs so interesting to me is that they connect places and cultures on a literal instead of abstract level. While it’s great to hear about US artists making inroads into other countries, having space to show work and getting funding for large commissions, it would also be nice to see our government doing more to help artists from other countries carry out work here, maybe in collaboration with US museums and cultural institutions. Cultural diplomacy isn’t just a one way street — what could a full-scale international art event like La Biennale di Venezia do for us here?

Another issue that this brings to mind is that, like the international biennial circuit, the same artists seem to come up over and over for public commissions. I would be great to see more surprising choices and not the same olds.

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