Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Matter of Trust or Simply a Bad Idea?

Jason Edward Kaufman at The Art Newspaper tells us that the State Department is encouraging US Museums to apply for grants to collaborate with foreign institutions in order to "promote US foreign policy." Established in conjunction with the American Association of Museums(AAM), the program (the Museums & Community Collaborations Abroad [MCCA]) is described as such by the AAM:

What is Museums & Community Collaborations Abroad?
Museums & Community Collaborations Abroad (MCCA) is a new AAM grant program designed to strengthen international connections through innovative, museum-based exchanges. MCCA grants are offered in amounts between $50,000 and $100,000. Funding for MCCA is provided through a partnership with the US Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
In a nutshell the program is an attempt to use art in order to serve our current administration's version of our national interests. As with most things created by the current administration, it has a slightly Orwellian feel to it as well:
Proposals that include foreign museums pre-selected by US Embassies and Consulates “may receive additional consideration by the MCCA Selection Committee”, the application guidelines state. The State Department website presents model projects which have been proposed by US diplomats abroad. The State Department requires that these proposals include a statement explaining: “How this project promotes US foreign policy.”

For example, the US Consulate in Peshawar has proposed that US museums partner with Pakistani institutions on a programme designed to increase understanding of pre-Islamic history in the Islamic fundamentalist Northwest Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan. “A tangible dynamic exists which downplays or denies the region’s pre-Islamic roots, most prevalently in…tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan,” explains the consulate. US officials in Nepal, Bolivia and Peru are seeking partnerships that “spread tolerance and respect for diversity”.
On one hand, I want to say "fair enough." The government can't be expected to hand out money to projects that undermine our foreign policy. Regardless of how off-track that foreign policy might be in general, it's moronic to expect the State Department to fund projects that make its job harder. So you either don't apply for state funds for your project or accept that this is why they're handing out money.

On the other hand, encouraging museums to tailor their proposals to support policy (rather than simply awarding grants to the best proposals) is likely to backfire. Imagine that a journalist covering the exhibition in Peshawar gets wind of the grant. Does anyone honestly believe that won't color his/her appraisal of the exhibition? No matter how honestly it might have been curated, the conditions of its funding could undercut its effectiveness.

CultureGrrl's Lee Rosenbaum has been
all over this topic, including being interviewed about it by NPR. She concluded in her first post on the topic:
Cultural ties can assuredly improve relations between countries, but not when they are conceived as an instrument of political propaganda. AAM has done a disservice to its members by signing up for this dubious government-curated enterprise.
Erik Ledbetter, senior manager of international programs for the American Association of Museums, responded to Lee's concerns in an email she posted:

Cultural diplomacy--the exchange of ideas, information, art, and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples in order to foster mutual understanding--is nothing new at AAM and US museums. For 25 years, AAM and the US Department of State have partnered to enable US museum professionals to collaborate with colleagues abroad. [...] All these exchanges were conducted in the straightforward conviction that museum professionals operating with complete academic freedom are among the most effective ambassadors between cultures.
Erik notes further:

Lee has expressed her worry--bordering on conviction--that the State Department will exert undue influence on the content of the projects or the selection of the final awards. A complete reading of the program criteria and selection procedures will put such concerns swiftly to rest.

In specific:

• Only US museums, not AAM or the State Department, can make proposals.
• US museums can propose on any subject and with any partner they choose.
• US museums are in total control of the participating staff as well as the format, structure, and content of their projects.
• Department of State does not vet the proposals at any point in the competition cycle.
• Final selection will be made by a peer review panel composed of a past IPAM participant from a US museum; a representative of ICOM-US (the US National Committee of the International Council of Museums); and a distinguished non-US museum professional.
Two things occur to me regarding all this.

First is the notion that although, as Erik points out, "US museums can propose on any subject and with any partner they choose," it's already clear what type of proposal they're likely to accept (and thus, likewise, not accept), so this strikes me as slightly disingenuous. I suppose the assumption is that you could propose an exhibition that's so wonderful that pre-selected locations and/or priorities might be pushed aside in the selection process, but there are clear indications that curators exploring "any subject" that conflicts with the Bush Administration's foreign policy (say an exhibition that in essence condemns torture [it would certainly be something any previous President's administration might give money to promote]) need not apply at this time.

Second, however, is that I'm not so sure I object to the program nearly as much as I object to the administration in charge of it at the moment. In other words, is my objection simply that I don't trust the current administration? If Gore were President, and I felt exhibitions encouraging energy conservation and environmental concerns were likely to receive the grants, I might not be so suspicious of the program's objectives. I have to sort this out in my mind, but what are your thoughts?

Image Above: Luc Tuymans, The Secretary of State, 2005, Oil on canvas, 17.91 x 24.21 x 1.57 inches. From the website of David Zwirner Gallery.

Labels: government grants


Blogger Donna Dodson said...

There's always been the Art in Embassies program that many galleries participate in by lending work to cultural facilities abroad- whic promotes artists becoming ambassadors except artists can't apply or participate directly- it is through gatekeepers like curators and galleries and dealers or collectors that art reaches that audience and I dont know how the finances work- who funds the loan, insures it, pays the transportation expenses???

7/19/2007 09:29:00 AM  
Anonymous -j. said...

This dovetails quite nicely with Matthew Bown's take on your "Reality of the Collector-Driven Art World" posting.

(His posting is currently second to last in the comments section)

7/19/2007 09:29:00 AM  
Anonymous ml said...

Everything this administration does is suspect.

7/19/2007 09:58:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Ed said: I'm not so sure I object to the program nearly as much as I object to the administration in charge of it at the moment. In other words, is my objection simply that I don't trust the current administration?

I think you've got it, Ed. And why should you or anyone trust the Bash administration. Everything they've said has been a lie. Now they're pimping art.

As for the art, I suppose there's always a bit of "propaganda" in any kind of cultural exchange program, but when programs are administered by honest folks with cultural concerns, or at least good intentions, mild propaganda can turn into actual information exchange. With the
Bash administration, as ML rightly says, everything is suspect.

Re the Art in the Embassies program: I participated several times during Clinton I's term and never paid anything. The dealer handled it. My understandng is that it was a federally-funded project.

7/19/2007 10:21:00 AM  
Blogger Oly said...

This link says it all.

I'm sure redneck art would be a shoe-in recipient of federal funding.

7/19/2007 10:54:00 AM  
Blogger prettylady said...

is my objection simply that I don't trust the current administration?

This sort of thinking is, to my mind, insidiously dangerous. What you're implying here is that it's okay for government to manipulate people's opinions and perceptions--as long as these manipulations coincide with your personal agenda.

I know, Edward, that you're not that intellectually or morally irresponsible. But recently I have noticed an irony in people calling for increased government involvement at all levels of our lives, coupled with a profound unhappiness with the actions of the current corrupt and power-hungry administration. You can't have both.

When you give power to government, it's really difficult to take that power back when corrupt people get in charge.

7/19/2007 10:55:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

What you're implying here is that it's okay for government to manipulate people's opinions and perceptions--as long as these manipulations coincide with your personal agenda.

I think to a large degree, that's the central issue behind all the animosity in our country at the moment. It sums up the entire Red vs. Blue thing. Both sides feel that exact way (i.e., it's OK for government to do this or that so long as it conicides with your personal take on things). We on the left pride ourselves on being more self-aware than that, but friends on the right have pointed out many instances where what I assumed was balanced or objective was, to their mind, anything but, leading me to believe that it's impossible to act at all if one doesn't promote their own personal agenda in some sense. Even the idea that the best proposal, independent of whether it supports Bush's foreign policy or not, should win the grant is controversial. Some folks would argue vehemently that that sort of lassiez faire approach was unAmerican. You can round and round ad infinitum this way.

I think in the end, you accept that state funds will always work toward the advantage of those handing them out at the time. If that's not acceptable, you don't take the fund.

7/19/2007 11:07:00 AM  
Anonymous Jonathan T D Neil said...

It's tempting to see the current administration's "foreign policy" as a blanket program wholly characterized by its complete and total incompetence/failure in Iraq/Afghanistan and its compromised dealings with the mid-east more generally. But taking a look at the 5 sample proposals from the "pre-approved" foreign museums, with an eye to the sections that detail "How this project will promote US Foreign Policy Objectives," one has to be pretty cynical to take the stated goals as veiled strategies of US hegemony:

For the International Mountain Museum in Nepal:
"This museum partnership program would be a positive step forward in educating and exposing the more than 40 different ethnic groups, which are separated geographically, to each other in order to create a greater sense of unity and national consensus...For [Nepal's] tremendous political changes to have a lasting impact, the country's leaders must ensure that ethnic groups and dalits, or low-caste members of society are consulted and included in the political process."

For The National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, Bolivia:
Given that Bolivia has been experiencing intense social conflicts in recent years, the embassy sees the proposed museum exchange and project proposal as an opportunity to collaborate with an institution that works to spread tolerance and respect for diversity.

The others pretty much follow a similar line.

Now, I'm sure there is someone out there who will claim that all of these apparently good intentioned efforts on the part of the state department are simply programs for the development of more US-philic citizens who will then be more amenable to US foreign investment and consumer practices, etc. etc. But such a perspective only infantilizes and thus denigrates the intellectual capacities of these 'other' populations by viewing them as easily coddled and gulible masses.

All of this is a long way of seconding Ed's final bit of soul-searching: If a Gore administration was promoting "diversity" and "tolerance" through cultural exchanges, hardly an eyebrow would rise.

But as they say: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you...

7/19/2007 11:10:00 AM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

How could you design a project that promotes the policy of a government, without becoming a tool of that government?

And what government is so art-friendly that being their tool would be a positive thing for the artist?

Two names come to mind, both linked negatively with a government -- Leni Riefenstahl Arno Breker.

Robert Frost became America's poet long after he'd established himself, so no damage done, true?

Seems to me that artists we esteem had if anything a subversive or elegiac relationship to government. No?

Picasso - Fautrier - Solzhenitsyn - ???

Maybe the program you write about Edward would be perfect for artists who are so established or just so unremittingly "out there" that they're invulnerable to the damage such associations could bring:

Serra, Schnabel (!), Joan Mitchell, Matthew Barney (!!), Tuttle, Borofsky, di Suvero -- ???

Hey incidentally I hope you managed to sidestep the whole Grand Central Volcano disaster -

7/19/2007 05:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr Winkelman,
I appreciate the nuanced comments that yout post has elicited to my article. I believe that although the program may be used by curators interested in pursuing research in unstabile regions, the fact that ign partners pre-approved by US diplomats who make their proposals based on how the prospective program will advance US foreign policy poses a problem. It is another example of the Bush administration stepping in to guide activities that by definition should be governed independent of politics. We have seen this in the Attorney General's dismissal of federal judges who did not support the administration's ideology, and in the suppression of the former Surgeon General's advocacy on issues that conflict with the administration's party line. Our democracy relies on the health of an environment that nourishes a multiplicity of views. The judicial system is intended to check the authority of the executive and legislative branches, and it can do so effectively only when judges with diverse political views are allowed to function. The surgeon general is appointed to represent the health of the entire nation, not only those who support the current administraiton's policies. Similarly, museums must remain independent of politics and adhere to their scholarly and educational missions. Perhaps there are instances when those missions can dovetail with US foreign policy, but as you and many of your readers note, there is reason to suspect the underlying creiteria for selection set forth in the program's guidelines.

FInally, I wish to point out that after my piece was picked up by Lee Rosenbaum, NPR's Elizabeth Blair interviewed me for her segment. She also interviewed Ms Rosenbaum. She wound up excluding mention of me and The Art Newspaper, suggesting that NPR or Ms Rosenbaum had done the research and analysis that revealed the red flag buried in the program's guidelines. They did not, and I feel an ethical line was crossed.

Jason Kaufman

7/20/2007 12:44:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


Many thanks for the indepth, behind-the-scenes follow-up to your excellent investigative report. It is indeed a lapse in judgement for NPR, in my opinion, not to have noted where they learned of this apparent problem with the program.

7/20/2007 07:48:00 AM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

Sadly NPR and others we've looked to in the past for some level of truth and balance have let us all down repeatedly in recent years.

7/20/2007 10:21:00 AM  
Blogger aurix said...

But even if the program were to be completely independent of politics, that is, the best proposal wins, regardless of US foreign policy interest, wouldn't cynics say that it was still propaganda for the US: art for art's sake, land of the free?

Because any statement that comes out of an exhibition that involves a state one way or another can always be interpreted as political.

So should the state stop supporting the arts entirely?

7/20/2007 12:51:00 PM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

Freedom of speech is an American value. I'd be all for an exhibition program that supported it.

7/21/2007 10:44:00 AM  
Blogger tim atherton said...

Well, remember the US government, through the CIA did this more secretly for years (there's an argument some make that the absract expressionists would have fizzled and died without them...)

Secret funding through various foundations for galleries, artists, art promotion and exhibition tours overseas etc as part of fighting the Cold War

I'm only surprised (oaky, I'm not) they are so emboldened as to be this up-front about it this time...

7/23/2007 11:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The sky is falling, the sky is falling!

7/24/2007 04:09:00 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home