Date: December 20, 2009 Title: Building bridges with art Embassies 'decorating' project grows into global cultural exchange Source: By Ann Hicks Arts writer / Greenville OnLine. Com City and Country: art in Embassies

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Date: December 20, 2009
Title: Building bridges with art - Embassies 'decorating' project grows into global cultural exchange

Source: By Ann Hicks - Arts writer / Greenville OnLine.Com

City and Country: ART in Embassies

Art in Embassies Program curator Sarah Tanguy says ambassadors employ artwork themes as diplomatic tools.

It may be one-on-one, the artist and the collector or listener; collective, as through a museum or concert experience; or global, as when cultural diplomacy links nations.

Working off that latter palette, the U.S. Department of State’s nearly 50-year-old Art in Embassies Program has covered the hitherto bare walls of American embassies and ambassadorial residences with an array of artistic expressions.

What began in 1964 as a decorating project has through the years added artistic weight to America’s diplomatic pouch.

Curator Sarah Tanguy, who for more than a decade has worked with the program, says the cultural outreach places some 3,500 works by 3,000 artists in about 180 ambassadors’ residences and embassy public places. The artworks are borrowed from a base of more than 8,000 current and past lenders in addition to the agency’s small collection.

The program builds both permanent and temporary collections.

Tanguy’s description of how and why artworks are selected opens a window on a fascinating process that uses America’s artistic riches to build people-to-people relationships across national boundaries.

Temporary collections

Temporary collections are most often built around themes, Tanguy says, and the artworks are obtained through loans running 2½ to three years to coincide with an ambassador’s tenure.

The process gets underway when an ambassador – either a designate or already confirmed – meets with the curatorial team in an initial consultation to talk about exhibition ideas. The cultural exchange is a diplomatic tool for the ambassador, Tanguy says.

“With the host country in mind, themes are proposed and built that resonate with what the ambassadors want to emphasize,” she says.

Ambassadorial choices vary greatly, Tanguy says. She and her colleagues have handled environmental themes by selecting works by America’s landscape artists, for example. A theme about labor practices sent the curatorial team to the Library of Congress for black and white copies of Lewis W. Hine’s investigative photographs of child labor in the United States.

“We also did a whole exhibition on prejudice and racism expressed by quilt art at the American Embassy in Pakistan,” Tanguy says, “and met yet another request from the ambassador to Mali, a country of perpetual summer, to introduce its people to the United States through a colorful show about the three other seasons, so they could see what fall, spring and winter look like in America.”

Permanent collections

For the placement of permanent collections there’s no need to consult with the ambassadors, Tanguy says. State Department curators work with fellow curators in countries in which collections are placed, choosing from a list of recommended artists and specific artworks.

These permanent collections combine works by American artists with artworks by artists of the host country. And sometimes, Tanguy says, the AIEP “may add a few more artists who have no obvious or blood ties with the country, but their work is on-theme.”

Diplomats do differ

When it comes to personal art collections, there is a big difference between career ambassadors and political appointees, Tanguy says. Career ambassadors have worked their way through the State Department ranks and tend not to be independently wealthy with personal art collections.

However, political appointees are often heavyweight art collectors – especially those with the big posts such as London or Paris – who arrive with their own museum contacts and ideas for what they want in the way of embassy art displays. Some of those requests might include renowned American artists and, if the ambassador also is a board member at an important museum, “it sort of greases the wheel to have the museum agree to lend such artworks,” says Tanguy.

Delivering the goods

Most of the AIEP’s budget is spent on the nuts and bolts of picking up the artwork, crating it and air freighting it to the country of its destination. The agency also insures each work of art during its transit to and from post and while it is on exhibit at the ambassador’s residence.

If a show is sent by a major museum, the museum staff travels to supervise the installation and the de-installation.

As for Tanguy and her colleagues, she says, they seldom travel with the State Department’s art-lending program. “Not because we don’t want to,” she laughs, “it’s because we do not have the resources.”

Follow arts writer Ann Hicks on or reach her at 864-298-4004.

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