The New York Times

April 14, 2002, The New York Times

Showing the Flag of Culture (Or Not)

Foreign governments build up art outposts in New York

With a steeply raked glass facade that appears to fall like the blade of a guillotine, the Austrian Cultural Forum is one of the most striking buildings to have gone up in New York in decades. It’s also a dramatic, 24-story, $29 million embodiment of how nations use culture to polish their image.

Cultural prestige has always followed troops and trade as a measure of a nation’s influence. Even when once-great powers lose political and economic dominion, they still yearn to hold sway in the cultural realm. Austria is a prime example: the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 may have relegated the surviving Austrian Republic to the bush leagues of international politics, but fervid promotion of its artistic heritage has enabled this small Alpine nation to retain cultural renown.

For decades Austria has bankrolled national treasures like the Vienna State Opera, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Salzburg Festival. Now, on Friday, it will dedicate its towering new American outpost, designed by the Austrian-born architect Raimund Abraham. The building, on 52nd Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues, contains galleries, a library and a theater as well as offices. But it doesn’t stand alone; it’s only the latest in a flurry of gestures by foreign nations to show their cultural bona fides in New York.

Several countries are opening cultural centers to capture the imagination of the American public and reflect glory back home; still more are lending state support for performances and exhibitions involving their native artists at American institutions.

Yet the phenomenon is mostly one-sided. While many nations have embraced cultural diplomacy and made New York the focal point of it, the United States has been reluctant to use art to communicate American objectives overseas at a time of broad American reach. The end of the cold war and the global scope of satellite broadcasting and the Internet have helped the United States attain not only vast new political power but also an increasingly dominating cultural influence that both attracts and repels. And many officials believe that popular culture can be a potent weapon in the American arsenal, a view cannily underlined by Secretary of State Colin Powell’s appearance on MTV in February in which he defended the American campaign against terrorism before a worldwide audience of young people. But American politicians have shown little appetite for using state auspices to export a broader range of American arts than is available through market incentives.

The opposite is happening in Europe. Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden have helped finance construction of the new six-story Scandinavia House on Park Avenue, run by a nonprofit foundation as a kind of permanent World’s Fair pavilion for Nordic art exhibitions, concerts, lectures and films. Spain will open a $19 million arts center on East 49th Street. The Italian Cultural Institute, now operating out of a stately but shabby 1919 mansion on Park Avenue, plans to move by the end of 2003 to more up-to-date Midtown premises, where it can greatly expand its programming.

The lavishness of these facilities attests to their home countries’ belief in the importance of culture as a tool of diplomacy. “It’s a powerful way for governments and nations to gain positive attention,” says Curtis Barlow, director of cultural affairs for Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. “At the senior level of government, there is a growing recognition of the utility and importance of this kind of work.”

Foreign diplomats and arts administrators alike say that using culture for international understanding has taken on heightened significance. “Since Sept. 11, people are more conscious of the fact that we live in one world and that culture can help bridge our differences,” said Karen Brooks Hopkins, president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of many New York institutions that benefit from foreign governments’ promotional efforts.

Schuyler Chapin, the New York City Commissioner for Cultural Affairs from 1994 to 2001, said: “Propaganda has nasty connotations as a word, but putting a country’s strengths and cultural resources in front of people is a very persuasive argument about the legitimacy and general artistic energy that may be found in country X. New York is in many ways the cultural capital of the Western world, so it’s natural that countries wishing to represent themselves from the standpoint of cultural life would gravitate to this city.”

New York has been a stage for a wealth of foreign-supported cultural initiatives in the last two years. A partial list includes the Lincoln Center Festival performance of the Dutch opera “Writing to Vermeer,” a retrospective of the Spanish director Luis Bu’uel’s films at the Museum of Modern Art, French dance performances at the Joyce Theater, a workshop featuring the German composer Helmut Lachenmann at Columbia University, a symposium on 20th-century Swedish design by the Bard Graduate Center and an evening of Canadian comedy at the 92nd Street Y presented by Michael J. Fox. All were at least partly supported by the nations whose art was on display.

Why would envoys of the Ottawa government help organize an evening of Canadian comedy? “Most people think of Canada in terms of Peter Jennings or cold weather,” said Kevin O’Shea, a diplomat who was involved. In an attempt “to get across a more vibrant image,” he said, Canada has recently tripled its budget for arts promotion in New York.

The goal of erasing stereotypes comes up repeatedly. Paolo Riani, director of the Italian Cultural Institute, is intent on “presenting an image of the country that is not just Mafia, not just fashion.” Flavio Perri, the Brazilian consul general, wants “to show we are more than Carnival.”

Explaining why Israel is helping defray the cost of the Batsheva Dance Company’s appearance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music later this month, the cultural attaché, Ofra Ben-Yaacov, says: “We are too much in the news because of events. It’s important to see that we don’t only fight, that we have better channels.” Max Imgrügh, chairman of the Swiss Institute, which receives part of its financing from the government, aspires “to show that there’s more to Switzerland than bank accounts and the Holocaust.”

Similar thinking in the mid-1980’s led to the attention-getting Austrian Cultural Forum. Austria wanted to break out of the international isolation that had been caused by the revelations of President Kurt Waldheim’s service in a German army unit involved in Nazi war crimes. One way to cast the country in a more favorable light, it was decided, would be to erect an arresting, architecturally significant building in the middle Manhattan. But it’s not an approach every nation is prepared to take.

How to make a mark on New York’s jam-packed arts scene through less concrete measures is the challenge facing dozens of foreign cultural representatives. “It’s useless to be gallery No. 1,428 or to make a small concert when it’s the 27th on a given night,” says Stephan Nobbe, director of the Goethe Institut. For this reason, the $7.5 million that the institute spends each year to promote German culture in the United States — largely provided by the German Foreign Ministry — is frequently used to help stage events at local institutions like the Guggenheim Museum or the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center rather than to finance presentations at the Goethe Institut itself, on upper Fifth Avenue.

Less prosperous countries are also resourceful at beating their artistic drums. Mongolia staged a citywide festival in 2000 that included wrestling and archery displays in Central Park and a show of dinosaur relics at the American Museum of Natural History, all of which coincided with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition on the theme of the Mongolian horse.

European powers like Germany and France are old hands at cultural diplomacy. The Goethe Institut was founded before World War II and rapidly became enmeshed in Nazi ideology. But its postwar activities have greatly reinforced the democratic credentials of today’s Federal Republic. France, which employs 85 people in 10 offices around the United States to promote French culture, created the Alliance Fran’aise in 1883 to help regain national prestige after its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Since then, France has believed that acquainting foreigners with its intellectual and cultural traditions buys sympathy for its political and economic policies.

The official use of culture can backfire. Chinese interference in the aborted American premiere of the opera “Peony Pavilion” at the 1998 Lincoln Center Festival demonstrated the perils. After agreeing to send the epic work to the festival, Shanghai officials saw a preview of the production and denounced it as “feudal,” “absurd” and “pornographic.” They then refused to allow performers to travel to New York. (The director pursued other avenues and the opera was staged in 1999.)

But curators and artistic directors say they can recall no other recent instance of overt state intervention in a cultural endeavor here.

While New York arts institutions insist that their bookings are based on artistic criteria, they often rely on cultural attach’s to bring new artists and productions to their attention. Foreign governments will also foot the bill for curators and presenters to travel abroad to see the work. “They provide us with a knowledge base,” said Robert Harth, artistic director of Carnegie Hall, which does not accept subsidized trips.

The degree to which United States arts institutions receive help from foreign nations varies widely. Ms. Hopkins of the Brooklyn Academy says “it would be tough” for the Academy to keep up its high level of international programming without diplomatic backing. At the Museum of Modern Art, foreign financing has been modest in contrast to the overall cost of any exhibition, says the director, Glenn Lowry. But state support for shows like the recent Giacometti retrospective, backed by Switzerland, helped gain additional money from foundations and private donors.

Once government backing is lined up, cultural attach’s often go further, acting as go-betweens to find corporate sponsors from their own countries. Jean-Ren’ Gehan, the French cultural counselor, said he had helped arrange sponsorships by the media giant Vivendi Universal, the aircraft manufacturer Dassault and the Soci’t’ G’n’rale bank.

Officially supported culture used to flow more readily across the Atlantic. During the 1950’s and 60’s, the United States Information Agency flooded Europe with American orchestras, dance groups, art exhibits and jazz performances as well as the Broadway musicals “Porgy and Bess” and “My Fair Lady.”

No sooner had the communist threat waned after 1991, however, than United States initiatives were cut back severely. In 1999, the U.S.I.A. itself was folded into the State Department. The United States dropped out of Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany. The network of American libraries and reading rooms overseas has been reduced to 168, from a high of 254 in 1963. Only 22 percent are traditional lending libraries; these “information resource centers,” as they’re now called, often consist of a single computer terminal.

Sept. 11 and its aftermath raise the question whether slashing cultural diplomacy was prudent. Editorial writers are asking how best to combat distortions about the United States, and the film critic David Denby, among others, has urged that cultural diplomacy be revived in the Islamic world. Writing in the online magazine Slate, he advocated sending a wider range of films abroad as well as dispatching poets, professors and cultural journalists: “We can do it not by boasting or exhorting, but by describing, illustrating, embodying — that is, by showing up.”

America has long had an aversion to official involvement in the arts. Although most foreign countries have national ministries of culture and regard protection of their artistic heritage as a public responsibility, Americans have been wary of such bureaucratic control. From the Depression-era Works Projects Administration through more recent upheavals involving the National Endowment for the Arts, federal support of culture has set off heated debate.

Patricia Harrison, the assistant secretary of state for Educational and Cultural Affairs, agrees that there’s a need to refocus cultural diplomacy to correct misperceptions abroad. Along with cultural programming, Ms. Harrison oversees the Fulbright Program, which offers 4,500 grants a year to foreigners to study in the United States and to Americans to go abroad. “We need more opportunities for dialogue,” she said, but she cautioned that that it could take years for any new cultural programs to have an impact. Ms. Harrison said the Bush administration had not substantially reversed the cuts in cultural diplomacy, but added, “We have put a tourniquet on the hemorrhaging.”

Joseph S. Nye Jr., dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, argues that America’s commercial cultural exports already make up a form of “soft power” that influences other societies by implicitly promoting American values like personal freedom, upward mobility and democratic openness. But he also believes that the government can’t do much to offset the hostility that popular products like “Baywatch” or Britney Spears videos can provoke. “Efforts to balance the scene by supporting exports of American high culture — libraries and art exhibits — are at best a useful palliative,” Professor Nye said.

To be sure, advocates of reviving American cultural diplomacy do not suggest that Washington merely trumpet the upper reaches of American artistic achievement. “We can’t simply say we have great novelists and great architects,” said the historian Richard Pells, author of “Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated and Transformed American Culture Since World War II.”

“But we need to engage people abroad on why they feel uncomfortable when they encounter America in their own living rooms,” Professor Pells said. “Many people interpret America in terms of its most visible artifacts — the Golden Arches or Mickey Mouse. American cultural diplomacy could demystify these artifacts and engage in a dialogue on why they’re so popular.”