Inspired by the giddy rush of culture that the U.S. government sent around the globe during the Cold War, Dave Brubeck and his wife, Iola, wrote a 1962 musical titled “The Real Ambassadors.” Starring Louis Armstrong and Carmen MacRae, it included such lyrics as:
“The State Department has discovered jazz. It reaches folks like nothing ever has….
Say that our prestige needs a tonic, export the Philharmonic.”
Indeed, for decades the government energetically promoted foreign tours by American orchestras, dance troupes, art exhibits and jazz musicians to help demonstrate the vitality of democratic ideals. Once the communist threat waned after 1991, however, official U.S. cultural initiatives abroad were cut back severely. Now, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, the State Department has begun to rethink the importance of cultural diplomacy and has enlisted a fresh cadre of cultural figures to make international appearances and combat rising anti-American sentiment.
The group includes cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser, actor Ron Silver, former Supremes singer Mary Wilson and television actress Doris Roberts.
Their involvement in a planned worldwide series of U.S. government-sponsored performances, master classes and workshops is part of a new exchange program that aims to turn leading exponents of American creativity into inspirational mentors for young foreigners. The program, which is targeting people ages 12 to 25 and goes by the somewhat clumsy name of CultureConnect, involves not only showcasing U.S. cultural prowess but also bringing foreign artists to the United States for encounters with young Americans.
“We don’t understand other people’s culture, and people in other countries don’t understand who we are,” said Patricia Harrison, assistant secretary of State for educational and cultural affairs, who initiated CultureConnect. By putting young foreigners in touch with accomplished Americans, the officials behind the program hope to give overseas audiences a formative experience they can weigh against other information about the United States received from television, movies or political and religious authorities.
“We can’t afford stereotypes,” Harrison said. “They can cost us our lives.”
The program has gotten underway in recent weeks with a series of pilot trips by Ma to Lithuania, Kaiser to Mexico and Graves to Romania, Poland and Venezuela. McCourt is due to go to Turkey in October. Visits to other Islamic nations are planned, but State Department officials are grappling with security considerations in those countries.
This year, the department began the worldwide distribution of an anthology of essays by 15 American writers, several of whom gave lectures abroad under the department’s aegis. But two of those writers — poet Robert Creeley and novelist Julia Alvarez — later cited political differences with the Bush administration and refused to join a lecture tour that was planned ahead of the Iraq war. In contrast to that limited series of lectures, CultureConnect is envisioned as a far more ambitious, ongoing endeavor that will recruit a growing number of American arts figures to serve as what the State Department is calling “cultural ambassadors.”
To convince prospective envoys to enlist, the department turned to photographer Joel Meyerowitz, whose images of the World Trade Center disaster have been the focus of an official traveling exhibition that has been seen by more than 3 million people in 60 countries.
“They wanted somebody to say, ‘The administration isn’t going to steal your soul,’ ” he recalled telling fellow artists about his own appearances in conjunction with the photo display.
Assistant Secretary Harrison also stressed the nonpartisan nature of the program, which is being administered by a Clinton administration appointee, Brian Sexton, who has remained in the State Department under President Bush as a senior advisor.
“We’re not asking you to comment pro or con on foreign policy,” Harrison said of the cultural envoys. “We’re asking you to be there for the young people.”
Such pleas convinced McCourt, a former high school teacher who wrote the bestseller “Angela’s Ashes.”
“Anti-Americanism is rampant, and they need people to go around the world,” he said. “I would go if Adolf Hitler was ruling in Washington because government is beside the point.”
Each of the cultural ambassadors has made a commitment to travel on behalf of the State Department at least twice a year for two to three years. None are being paid for their services. Operating costs for the program’s inaugural year are estimated at $1 million.
“It’s not a one-time event,” said cellist Ma, who has identified musicians from Azerbaijan, Iran, India and China he hopes to bring to the U.S. through CultureConnect. Ma has long championed music as a magnet for bringing people together.
“I’m proud to be an American, but I’m dealing in music,” he said. “I’m not selling something. I’m just sharing what I know, and one of the best things about America is the spirit of inquiry…. If you reveal what is precious in yourself and they receive it, you may not be able to put a dollar sign on it, or to parlay it into a geopolitical thing, but you’ve made an important exchange.”
Personal contact between American artists and foreign youths gives “a face and a personality” to the nation, said singer Graves, demonstrating “that we’re all not greedy, fat and lazy and want to drive big cars and live in giant houses. We care about people, culture, education and how our children are raised. I don’t think people abroad get an opportunity to see that.
“I see what’s being exported in terms of American culture, and I know that it’s not an accurate view of who we are,” added Graves, who will star in Los Angeles Opera’s first production of its new season, “The Damnation of Faust.” Her appearances abroad as an African American classical singer “dispel stereotypes that other people may have about us as Americans,” she said.