Beyond Cultural Diplomacy

(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series click here.)

By Honor Bailey   

“How many of you are policymakers?” asked Aimee Fullman, founder of Meaningful Engagement International, to the gathered crowd.

“Artists? Diplomats?” she questioned, surveying the raised hands.

 The vibrant mixture of attendees reflected the cross-disciplinary nature of the panel discussion, “Beyond Cultural Diplomacy: Arts, Policy, Change,” an event sponsored by the World Policy Institute and the Yiyuan Society. The idea driving the event, and in a larger context the cultural diplomacy movement, is that every individual is both a diplomat and a citizen artist. Cultural diplomacy, a key component of international politics, entails a responsibility to support the arts through well-planned policy and to examine policy through the arts.

 These goals resonate with the World Policy Institute’s Arts-Policy Nexus project. Countless socially-engaged artists struggle with the same problems as policymakers, and yet both camps often feel that the other has little to offer them. In response, the Arts-Policy Nexus seeks to engage artists and policymakers in meaningful and collaborative dialogue.

Mary Ann DeVlieg, Secretary General Emeritus of the International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts, captured the pervading disconnect between artists and policymakers in the event’s keynote address. She recalled a presentation she made to the Director-General for Arts and Culture at the United Nations. Before DeVlieg’s presentation, the Director-General haughtily proclaimed that he never understood artists and their jargon. DeVlieg, however, had thoroughly researched the Director-General in advance and had structured her presentation around his own vocabulary. After concluding her speech, DeVlieg turned to him confidently.

“You see,” the Director-General said with a self-satisfied smile, “I didn’t understand a word you said.” 

It wasn’t that he hadn’t understood; he had convinced himself before walking into the room that arts and policy are incompatible.

Cultural diplomacy argues that the exact opposite is true. Every one of the event’s speakers proved the Director-General wrong by inhabiting both worlds in their work. Emad Salem, Deputy Director of International Programs at Battery Dance Company, leads the organization’s Dancing to Connect program. Dancing to Connect produces week-long workshops around the world that pair individuals from both sides of a pressing local conflict. The seemingly incompatible participants collaborate to choreograph a dance and learn to see past their differences in the process. Salem emotionally recalled a performance choreographed by Israelis and Palestinians. After the dance, the students flooded the stage– crying, embracing, and celebrating their achievement without a trace of their old antagonism.

In addition to being socially powerful, the impact of cultural diplomacy can be quantified and used to improve politics. A prime example of a new breed cultural diplomacy, Battery Dance Company seamlessly interweaves policy and the arts. The success of the program stems not only from its ideals but from its methodology. Salem emphasized the importance of empirically evaluating cultural diplomacy programs, rather than claiming that the value of the arts is intrinsic and cannot be measured. Cultural diplomacy efforts should consider quantitative evaluation as a starting point for dialogue between artists and policymakers. It is the “common language” by which the two camps can begin to understand one another.

Subsequent speakers at the event delved deeper into the afternoon’s theme of “backyard diplomacy” and collective responsibility. Adam Horowitz, representing the fictional U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, dubbed the synthesis “the citizen artist.” Horowitz’s term captures the idea that cultural diplomacy cannot be successful when commandeered solely by artists or policymakers. Instead, both sides must nurture a shared sense of civic and cultural responsibility as the citizen artist.

It is not only artists and diplomats, however, who need to seek common ground. The concept of the citizen artist extends beyond artists and policymakers to include entire communities. The nexus of arts and policy will soon mature into a productive and challenging field of its own. Through their role as citizen artists, individuals will be able to directly access and participate in both the arts and policymaking. A strong collaboration between artists and policymakers could usher in a new level of civic engagement, where every citizen participates in their political world. 



Honor Bailey is an intern at The World Policy Institute. 


View the event page for a full list of speakers and related media from “Beyond Cultural Diplomacy" here.

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