Over the past six months, ongoing efforts in cultural diplomacy have lead to an increase in, and strengthening of, bilateral exchanges aimed at building partnerships and promoting trust.

  • The government of Vietnam has been one of the most visible and vocal advocates of cultural relations, initiating a series of partnerships in the region and even announcing 2009 as the “Year of Cultural Diplomacy.”[i] Vietnam opened its first cultural center in South Korea (South Korea established its own cultural center in Hanoi in 2006) and sent exhibition of ancient Vietnamese earthenware to the National Museum of Korea. “We hope that Vietnam’s intensification of cultural activities in the Republic of Korea will trigger a ‘Vietnamese Wave,” similar to the ‘Korean Wave’ in Vietnam,” said Nguyen Tan Dung, Vietnam’s prime minister—referring to the popularity of Korean pop culture across the region.[ii]
  • Thailand sent a troupe of khon performers to France during the international Ramayana Festival in January to “help promote cultural diplomacy and to help improve Thailand’s image and restore confidence in the government and the economy.”[iii] The khon dance uses physical postures, facial expressions and music to tell its story.
  • In March, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana, Cuba showed pieces from 28 New York galleries as part of the 10th Havana Biennial. That the U.S. Interests Section office in Havana gave the green light for the event is symbolic of the Obama administration’s philosophy towards Cuba.[iv]
  • The Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Washington D.C., the Meridian International Center, and the National Art Museum of China opened an art exhibition called Metropolis Now!, commemorating 30 years of formal diplomatic ties between the U.S. and China. The paintings, sculptures, mixed media, and video installations address the changes taking place in China’s largest cities.[v]
  • The U.S. State Department and Brooklyn Academy of Music launched DanceMotion USA, a program where dancers will perform abroad and engage with local artists through workshops, particularly in countries where public opinion towards the U.S. is low, such as Venezuela, Nigeria and Brazil.[vi]

  • Germany is reaching out to academics by building a series of missions to highlight German scientific and engineering achievements, and to connect local academics with German scientists who are doing research in similar areas. The first such House of Science opened in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and more are planned in Moscow, New Delhi and New York.[vii]
  • Becoming aware of the popularity of batik fabrics in Namibia, the Indonesian Embassy in Windhoek, Namibia hosted five workshops on batik design and culture aimed at increasing identification with Indonesia.[viii]

  • Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs launched Japanese Culture and Art Online as a tool for art directors, producers and curators in foreign countries.[ix]

Engagement with the Middle East continues to be a priority for western societies. In May, France and the UAE celebrated the groundbreaking of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, intended to display “works of various periods and geographical origin, with an emphasis on the dialogue between civilizations.”[x] That same weekend, President Nicolas Sarkozy inaugurated a new French military base, adding to France’s existing air force and naval presence in the area.

In March, the Kennedy Center held “Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World,” the largest Middle Eastern arts and culture festival in American history (over 800 singers, dancers, painters, musicians and actors). That same month, American jazz musician Alvin Atkinson traveled to Baghdad with the U.S. State Department for a new diplomacy program called Musical Overtures. Similar to the concept of Rhythm Road, the program has taken American musicians to conflict zones including Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon.[xi]

This month, New York City hosted “Muslim Voices: Arts and Ideas,” a 10-day festival featuring 20 countries and over 100 artists and performers. Organizers aimed to challenge American impressions of Muslim culture that they called monolithic, negative and or superficial.[xii] The Middle East was also strongly represented at the Book Expo America in New York, featuring over 600 representatives from Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the UAE, and more than 300 Arab-language children’s books.[xiii]

Scholars and practitioners continue to engage in discussions about cultural diplomacy, internationally. In March, Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage organized “Artistic and Cultural Heritage: A Contemporary Vision.” The forum featured panels such as “Cultural Diplomacy from the Arabic Perspective, Constructive Dialogue with the West,” and “Cultural Strategies of the Arab World: Pre- and Post-Museum.” [xiv] That same month, the Association of Public Diplomacy Scholars at the University of Southern California hosted “Cultural Diplomacy: Clash or Conversation,” and invited speakers from Mexico, Azerbaijan, Hollywood and the U.S. Department of State.

Indicative of a recent trend in consolidation of cultural relations apparatuses, France has launched the ‘Institut Francais’. The goal of the institute is to communicate France’s new cultural diplomacy. It will replace the myriad of French cultural centers that have mushroomed over the years. The Alliance Francaise, which offers language courses, will remain, but Culture France, which promotes cultural events, will be scrapped.[xv] Similarly, the British Council announced a two-year transformation and investment program to ensure the UK’s cultural relations body “remains efficient, delivers value for money can rapidly respond to new external environmental post-recession.”[xvi] One of the proposed “transformations,” is the consolidation of overseas financial hubs in Warsaw, Mexico, Beijing, Delhi and the UK into one center.

Lorena M. Sanchez is a recent graduate of the Master’s of Public Diplomacy program at the University of Southern California. She is a contributing researcher for the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. Lorena is the recipient of a Critical Language Scholarship from the U.S. State Department to study Turkish in Izmir, Turkey in Summer 2009. She is based in Paris, France.

[i] Faulker, Jeremy. “Rebirth of Cultural Diplomacy: Vietnam Pushes Forward with Cultural Diplomacy Renaissance.” Cultural Diplomacy News. http://www.culturaldiplomacynews.org/index.php?id=140,1266,0,0,1,0

[ii] “Hanoi Hopes to Spread ‘Vietnamese Wave’ in South Korea.” The Korea Herald. 29 May 2009. http://www.koreaherald.co.kr/NEWKHSITE/data/html_dir/2009/05/29/200905290092.asp

[iii] Un-Anongrak, Yingyong. “Our Masked Ambassadors.” The Bangkok Post. 22 February 2009. http://www.bangkokpost.com/life/family/12112/our-masked-ambassadors

[iv] “Chelsea Art Galleries Visit Havana.” Cultural Diplomacy News http://www.culturaldiplomacynews.org/index.php?id=140,1250,0,0,1,0

[v] Witzke, Sharon. “Chinese Artists as Cultural Diplomats.” Cultural Diplomacy News. http://www.culturaldiplomacynews.org/index.php?id=140,1247,0,0,1,0

[vi] Durkin, Erin. “Two Brooklyn Troupes to Engage in Diplomacy through Dance.” New York Daily News. 30 April 2009. http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/brooklyn/2009/04/30/2009-04-30_two_brooklyn_troupes_to_engage_in_diplomacy_through_dance.html

[vii] “Germany Expands Cultural Diplomacy with New Showcases.” Earth Times. 23 April 2009. http://www.earthtimes.org/articles/show/265593,germany-expands-cultural-diplomacy-with-new-showcases.html

[viii] Worang, Toary. “Indonesian Batik Gains Popularity in Namibia.” The Jakarta Post. 20 June 2009. http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2009/06/07/indonesian-batik-gains-popularity-namibia.html

[ix] Japanese Culture & Art Online http://www.bunka.go.jp/culture-online/

[x] Cocks, Anna Somers. “Sarkozy presides over Louvre Abu Dhabi Groundbreaking While Launching French Military Base in the Region.” The Art Newspaper. 20 May 2009. http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Sarkozy-presides-Louvre-Abu-Dhabi-groundbreaking-while-launching-French-military-region/17331

[xi] “U.S. Sends Musicians to Make Overtures in War Zones.” All About Jazz. 5 May 2009. http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/news.php?id=35140

[xii] Kaylan, Melik. “Muslim Voices, Western Ears.” The Wall Street Journal. 17 June 2009. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124519390252220837.html

[xiii] Bhatti, Junaid Abbas. “Arab Invasion at American Publishing Event.” Middle East Online.  8 June 2009.

[xiv] “Dubai Hosts Global Art Forum.” Middle East Online. 21 March 2009. http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=31082

[xv] “Push to sell French Culture.” The Strait Times. 25 March 2009. http://www.straitstimes.com/Breaking%2BNews/Lifestyle/Story/STIStory_354605.html

[xvi] “Transformation and Investment Program.” British Council. 10 June 2009. http://www.britishcouncil.org/new/press-office/press-releases/Transformation-and-investment-programme-announced/