… and now for something different – though there is a business angle, of course. For a half century, American Embassies overseas have displayed works by U.S. artists to the cognoscenti – and art buyers – of the world. The result of brainstorming at the Museum of Modern Art beginning in 1953, it took a decade to sell the idea to the State Department. An early example of a public/private partnership, the Art In Embassies (AIE) program was officially inaugurated by President Kennedy in 1963. The basic idea was to take the often drab spaces in American embassies and ambassadors’ residences that are seen by the foreign public and turn them into showcases for American artists. It seemed a good idea to use art as a “soft” form of U.S. diplomacy, proving to the world that there is a bit more to American culture than hamburgers and popular music. Simply displaying art soon expanded to arranging for traveling exhibitions of American art around the world.
Though the formal program had not yet been established, a trial exhibition was organized in 1953 in the ambassador’s residence in Oslo by the Museum of Modern Art. By 1959, MoMA was regularly loaning works to the Department of State and momentum for a formal program was growing, led by the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy, Douglas Dillon and William Fulbright. By 1960, MoMA had dragooned more than fifty other U.S. museums into the program and formal art exhibitions were organized in sixteen world capitols. The first was in Bonn and featured works by Jackson Pollack, Edward Hopper and Alexander Calder. The program has proven incredibly popular for U.S. artists and museums, and by the foreign viewing public. It has expanded to a continuing series of exhibitions, commissions for artists to decorate embassies and consulates, even travel abroad for more than 100 U.S. artists. The program has branched out to organize exhibitions of American art at foreign art museums.
Today, AIE is a public-private partnership engaging over 20,000 participants globally, including artists, museums, galleries, universities, and private collectors, and encompasses over 200 venues in 189 countries. Professional curators and registrars create and ship about 60 exhibitions per year, and since 2003, over 58 permanent collections have been installed in … diplomatic facilities throughout the world.
Displaying art in American embassies is not just about showing off U.S. culture, or making embassies more pleasant places to work, though it accomplishes both those things. It is also about bringing U.S. artists to the attention of potential buyers who can afford good art, expanding the possible markets for U.S. artists. Yes, artists can sell through galleries – and there are even art trade shows (the European Fine Arts Fair in Maastricht come to mind), but the fact that a foreign buyer has seen an artist’s work in the diningroom of the American ambassador brings that artist forcibly to mind. The embassies do not sell their art, but they provide some very classy advertising for U.S. artists. As a commercial officer, I well recall conversations about American art and artists with Austrian industrialists or with the prime minister of Singapore occasioned by an artist’s display at a diplomatic function. This may be “soft diplomacy”, but it is also “soft marketing”. They work well together.