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A Arte da Diplomacia

Ansiosos para desviar a atenção das noticias económicas negativas e da agitação política,  países europeus, como a Espanha, Grécia e Itália estão a fazer um esforço de diplomacia cultural nos Estados Unidos.

The Art of Diplomacy: Exhibitions and National Promotion

Roland Flamini   World Affairs   January/February 2014

Early in October 2013, a group of high-ranking Greek officials, including Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, came to Washington for the opening of a major art exhibition from their country at the National Gallery of Art. But the black-tie event and the press conference to inaugurate the show, “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections,” were both canceled because of the government shutdown. As a result, a party of angry Greeks left for home muttering darkly about fearing Americans when you bear them gifts. The Greeks were not even allowed a private visit to the exhibition in which virtually every precious icon, ancient manuscript, and piece of mosaic had been loaned by museums and institutions in their country.

The Greek government began talking to US museums about a Byzantine exhibition three years ago. The year 2010 was the grimmest time for the country’s debt crisis, with Berlin lecturing Athens on its profligacy, Greece’s name serving as a byword for fiscal chaos, and the nation’s banishment from the European Union considered a real possibility in some quarters. Yet despite this, and despite the fact that tourists found Athens’s own museums closed because of staff layoffs and work stoppages to protest new austerity measures, Greek Minister of Culture Panos Panagiotopoulos insisted that there were no “hidden agendas, or any kind of pursuit related to the current situation.”

But Greece was due to assume the presidency of the European Union on January 1, 2014, and given the Greek government’s direct involvement, it’s hard not to see this blockbuster exhibition of more than one hundred and eighty artworks and artifacts in Washington as a timely reminder to the rest of the world that there is more to Greece than bad debts and inept governments. It’s equally hard not to detect a subliminal message, in the religious and secular masterpieces on display, that the Byzantine Empire flourished while the Germans were still daubing themselves with war paint in Western Europe’s Dark Ages.

Here was an important effort in cultural diplomacy gone awry as the attention-grabbing impact of a bells-and-whistles official opening in Washington was sacrificed to American political arm wrestling. But Greece is not the only European country using past glories to counter the negative image of its struggle for economic survival. Culture has long been a component of diplomatic business—part of so-called soft power—and many nations have long had cultural organizations active abroad. The Alliance Française, for example, was set up in 1883 by a group of prominent Frenchmen including Jules Verne and Louis Pasteur to repair the country’s shattered prestige after the Franco-Prussian War.

Such efforts are based on the received wisdom that culture can serve the national interest by influencing public perception, creating an image that other nations can relate to and respect. No wonder that some of the countries hit hardest by the European economic crisis have stepped up their cultural activity in an aggressive effort to burnish the brand.


This year, as Italy’s public debt rose to one hundred and thirty-three percent of its gross domestic product, the second-highest after Greece in the eurozone, the Italian government launched “Italy 2013: The Year of Italian Culture in the United States,” an ambitious, wide-ranging celebration of Italian art, music, cinema, design, fashion, cuisine, science, business, and technology, with events, concerts, and exhibitions targeting major cities across the United States.

Inaugurating the program in Washington at the foot of Michelangelo’s David-Apollo sculpture, loaned to the National Gallery for the occasion, Italy’s foreign minister of the moment, Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata, generally credited with the program’s creation, called culture “a fundamental pillar of our foreign policy.” He said, “My country’s cultural heritage is a unique national resource.”

Italian Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero expanded on this assertion in an interview in June, when the superb fourth-century BC bronze sculpture of the Boxer at Rest, his muscles bulging and pugilist’s face battered, went on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. “The main objective was to bring the best of Italy to the most important country in the world,” was how Bisogniero put it. “And culture, of course, is an important part of foreign policy. With this initiative we promote Italy, but also the friendship between Italy and America. Certainly, the Year of Culture aims to promote our art, the Made in Italy label, our landscape, and our ability to create and innovate, as we did in the past and as we continue to do today. But all of this [is] organized around a concept, a value that the Renaissance exalted and which today is still relevant is the centrality of man. It is this dimension that, ultimately, brings us back to the universal masterpieces of music, theater, literature, and film, and the achievements of science and technology.” More recently, Greece’s Panos Panagiotopoulos echoed the sentiment: “For Greece, culture is one of our most valuable assets,” declared the minister. And because the capital of Byzantium was actually Constantinople (now Istanbul), not Athens, he went on to make the case for proprietorship: “The horizontal line of Greekness running through the exhibition is absolutely obvious. Many elements of Byzantium were transferred to the West and constituted fundamental pillars of Western culture.”

Italy’s cultural offerings range in scope from Caravaggio’s Adoration of the Shepherds and the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini to snatches of Italian poetry posted (with translation) inside buses and subway trains. Washington’s Air and Space Museum showed Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds, an attempt to canonize da Vinci as the Father of Flight. An exhibition called “Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince and its Era (1513–2013),” focusing on Machiavelli’s evergreen treatise on politics and power, inevitably makes one wish it was compulsory reading for contemporary politicians on both sides of the Atlantic.

Spain, another European country facing serious economic challenges, has also stepped up its cultural effort in the US. Covering thirty-three cities in the United States and Canada, the Spanish program, typically, pushes flamenco; Spanish cinema and theater; an exhibition of works by Joaquín Sorolla, Spain’s own Impressionist, whom the country is re-discovering after a period of neglect (he has just been put on permanent exhibition at the Prado Museum in Madrid); the new vogue for Spanish cuisine with the elevation of tapas to an art form; and even a comic book exhibition.

Less economically challenged eurozone members have not seen the need to escalate their cultural drive in the United States. An interesting study in contrasts was the way Italy and Germany marked the respective bicentennials of Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi. The Italian Embassy in Washington organized a series of interesting lecture/performances on various aspects of Verdi’s operas. The embassy also imported an orchestra from La Scala Opera House in Milan to perform (superbly) Verdi’s music. The Germans marked Wagner’s two-hundredth birthday in Washington with his portrait on the sides of buses.


But do these strategies work? There is no effective mechanism for measuring which model of action and funding is the most effective. Media reaction is one indicator; the other could be a significant spike in the number of tourists—or even the absence of any feared drop in foreign visitors. Italian Embassy officials say part of the effort is to engage Italian-Americans, particularly since many members of the huge Italian diaspora are direct participants in Italy’s political system through an electoral process that allows them to vote for their own expatriate representatives in Italian elections. (Later, the Italian Embassy extended “The Year of Italian Culture” for a further six months—until July 1, 2014, when Italy will succeed Greece in the EU presidency.) As for the Spanish effort, in part the program is targeted at 38.7 million Hispanics in the United States, whose language is Spanish and who have Spanish cultural roots—a reminder that Spain is la madre patria (the mother country), a phrase more favored in Spain than in the former colonies.

That two of America’s leading museums should be involved in these recent cultural offensives is no coincidence. The use of museums for purposes of international relations has risen in tandem with the increase in cultural diplomacy. Washington’s National Gallery of Art is one of the city’s icons, an art lovers’ Mecca drawing four million visitors a year, and hence an ideal showcase for an international exhibition. The Metropolitan Museum in New York is in a class by itself in the United States, but it is not in the nation’s capital, which is what makes the National Gallery the top choice of a foreign government seeking to enhance its brand.

The same thing is true elsewhere. In 2005, the British Museum in London mounted a show called “Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia” with loans from the collections of Tehran’s National Museum and the Persepolis Museum. Iran’s objective in agreeing to an exhibition focusing on its Persian past was twofold. First, to counter some of the rising criticism of its nuclear development program; but secondly, because in return the British Museum had promised to loan Iran the Cyrus Cylinder, the baked clay cylinder recording, in Babylonian cuneiform script, the conquest of Babylon (in other words, modern-day Iraq) by the Persian King Cyrus. The cylinder dates back to the sixth century BC and was discovered in Mesopotamia. Because it describes Cyrus’s humane treatment of the conquered Babylonians, the artifact has been described as the world’s earliest charter of human rights.

When the 2006 elections in Iran turned violent, the British Museum was concerned for the safety of the Cyrus Cylinder in Tehran, and for a time balked at fulfilling its side of the agreement. Then two clay fragments thought to be missing parts of the cylinder were discovered and the museum asked for an additional delay to study them. An irate Iranian regime threatened to cut off relations with the British Museum, accusing it of mendacity, and in 2010, the Cyrus Cylinder was dispatched to Tehran.

The British Museum gave in because loan agreements between museums are a crucial part of the glue that holds cultural diplomacy together. Blockbuster shows—the big, important exhibitions that bring excitement to the museum world, capture the headlines, and pull in the crowds—are largely made up of loans from other institutions. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” Polonius’s counsel to his son Laertes in Hamlet, may be sound advice for most people, but not for museum directors. At least, not in relation to the art collections they administer. A museum that is not willing to lend works from its collection will face nothing but refusals when the time comes to borrow from other institutions for its own exhibitions. The generous lenders reap the full benefits of the system.

The numbers tell the story. Last year, the National Gallery of Art borrowed two thousand seven hundred and fifty paintings and other artworks from museums and other lenders in the United States and other countries for various exhibitions, and loaned one thousand six hundred and thirty works from its own collection. Negotiating such accords can be as complicated as any international treaty: the key element is reciprocity, but the inclusion of a fee to grease the wheels of cooperation is not unheard-of.

A case in point is “Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome,” a major exhibition in the Year of Italian Culture program and now at the Cleveland Museum of Art, having first been shown at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles. Most of the ancient artworks, including the two star attractions, a six-foot-high statue of a charioteer and a finely crafted gold drinking bowl (or phiale), are on loan from museums in Sicily, which manages its cultural affairs autonomously from the Italian mainland.

In part, the Sicilian cultural authorities had agreed to “Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome” in return for the Getty “repatriating” to Sicily dozens of archaeological treasures in its collection that the Sicilians claimed as part of the national heritage that never should have left the island in the first place. So as the Getty phase of the exhibition drew to a close, the Sicilians demanded the return of the charioteer and the phiale before the exhibition moved to Cleveland. The Sicilians argued that the two works had been missing from their respective institutions for too long, and their absence was costing Sicily valuable tourist dollars.

The Cleveland Museum’s director at the time, David Franklin, immediately began negotiations with Sicily. Without the two treasures as its crowning glory, there was some doubt whether the exhibition would be worth mounting at all. This was when Franklin discovered that the Italian government, which had backed the project from the start, had little leverage with the Sicilian cultural authorities. According to later reports, the Sicilians demanded a further $700,000 in fees. (The Getty had already paid $1 million in expenses connected with the exhibition, and a further $200,000 on a sonic isolator—described by the New York Times as “an anti-earthquake display stand”—for the charioteer statue, to be used at its permanent home in Sicily.)

Franklin rejected the cash demand, but came back with an offer the Sicilians couldn’t refuse: the loan of masterworks from the Cleveland collection, including Caravaggio’s The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew, incidentally one of the few works by the controversial sixteenth-century Italian painter in the United States.

Even Queen Elizabeth II has gotten in on the act. A few years back, when the Metropolitan Museum asked for the loan of a painting from the Royal Collection for a major show, Buckingham Palace countered with a request for the sixteenth-century portraitist Hans Holbein’s painting of Lady Guildford to be loaned, not to the Royal Collection, but to the National Gallery in London. The portrait was, and still is, in the permanent collection of the Saint Louis Art Museum, in Missouri, which happened to be one of the venues of the same show. A likeness of the lady’s husband, also by Holbein, is in the Royal Collection, and the queen suggested to the British National Gallery that the two portraits be shown together in a special exhibition—yet another offer that couldn’t be refused.


What really makes the museum loan system work, however, is a recurring miracle: in spite of the fragility of many of the works, damage is very rare. In part this is due to the efficacy of modern, high-tech packaging, transporting, and handling of works of art, including reinforced, climate-controlled cases for each individual object, and a strict limit on the number of artworks that a freight plane can carry. But we live in very dangerous times, and the willingness of museums—and governments—to continue to risk their treasured masterworks to be freighted across oceans to other countries is a measure of how attached the world is to the blockbuster culture. And the fact is that whether or not this is a disaster waiting to happen will be known only in hindsight. If, for example, the Mona Lisa were to be hijacked in transit by al-Qaeda, that would surely signal the end of exhibitions in the interests of cultural diplomacy, and of blockbusters mounted to bring in the crowds.

Such a moment was thought to have arrived immediately following 9/11. At the time of the Twin Towers attacks in New York, four important Impressionist paintings loaned to the Phillips Collection for an exhibition were in flight from Europe to Washington. When the news broke, the planes were immediately turned back. Airlines quickly imposed new restrictions on the cargo they would carry, and conservators traveling with paintings were barred from the old routine of occupying the jump seat in the cargo plane’s cockpit. Insurance agencies warned museums of significant hikes in premiums for valuable paintings.

But the story goes that a number of directors from leading American and foreign museums were called urgently to New York by Philippe de Montebello, then director of the Metropolitan, to consider the implications of the terrorist attack. Was this a shot across the bow that museums simply could not afford to ignore? The directors persuaded insurance companies to show restraint in raising premiums, and then decided that the end of the loan system for major exhibitions could also mark the end of museums as dynamic focal points of a nation’s cultural life and identity. None of the scheduled major exhibitions was canceled, although some private lenders reversed their commitment to loan works from their collections, or limited their lending to their own countries. But soon some of the best-known images in the art world were crisscrossing the globe. The tried-and-true system had stood the test.

What of the other side of the coin? US cultural diplomacy directed at the rest of the world is a hot-and-cold story at best. The US doesn’t have the equivalent of the British Council, the Alliance Française, or the German Goethe-Institut to provide continuity for such endeavors. Their nearest equivalent, the United States Information Agency, ceased to exist as a separate entity in 1999; at the State Department, the post of assistant secretary for educational and cultural affairs was abolished in 1978 and revived two decades later, in 1999.

A few years ago, an advisory committee appointed to submit a report on cultural diplomacy to the State Department noted that while “cultural diplomacy reveals the soul of the nation,” it was often ignored. “When our nation is at war, every tool in the diplomatic kit bag is employed, including the promotion of cultural activities,” the committee concluded. “But when peace returns, culture gets short shrift, because of our traditional lack of public support for the arts.” The report didn’t go into what happens when it’s hard to tell the difference.


Roland Flamini is a freelance journalist and former foreign correspondent and bureau chief for Time magazine in the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere.


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