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(E) Austrian Cultural Center
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  04/19/2002 | Culture And Arts | Unrated
(E) Austrian Cultural Center
 
This article appeared in the NY Times' Arts Section on Sunday, April 14. 
It is a great exposition of what other countries do to promote their 
culture in NYC and shows an example of what I have been urging Croatia 
should do. John Kraljic 
 
Op-ed 
Our plea is unison. We need Croatian Cultural Center in major world cities. With substantial budgets and qualified people working in it. 
Nenad Bach 
 
April 14, 2002 
Showing the Flag of Culture (or Not) 
By MICHAEL Z. WISE 
WTH a steeply raked glass facade that appears to fall like the blade of 
a guillotine, the Austrian Cultural Forum is one of the most striking 
buildings to have gone up in New York in decades. It's also a dramatic, 
24-story, $29 million embodiment of how nations use culture to polish 
their image. 
Cultural prestige has always followed troops and trade as a measure of a 
nation's influence. Even when once-great powers lose political and 
economic dominion, they still yearn to hold sway in the cultural realm. 
Austria is a prime example: the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire 
in 1918 may have relegated the surviving Austrian Republic to the bush 
leagues of international politics, but fervid promotion of its artistic 
heritage has enabled this small Alpine nation to retain cultural renown. 
For decades Austria has bankrolled national treasures like the Vienna 
State Opera, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Salzburg Festival. Now, on 
Friday, it will dedicate its towering new American outpost, designed by 
the Austrian-born architect Raimund Abraham. The building, on 52nd 
Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues, contains galleries, a library 
and a theater as well as offices. But it doesn't stand alone; it's only 
the latest in a flurry of gestures by foreign nations to show their 
cultural bona fides in New York. 
Several countries are opening cultural centers to capture the 
imagination of the American public and reflect glory back home; still 
more are lending state support for performances and exhibitions 
involving their native artists at American institutions. 
Yet the phenomenon is mostly one-sided. While many nations have embraced 
cultural diplomacy and made New York the focal point of it, the United 
States has been reluctant to use art to communicate American objectives 
overseas at a time of broad American reach. The end of the cold war and 
the global scope of satellite broadcasting and the Internet have helped 
the United States attain not only vast new political power but also an 
increasingly dominating cultural influence that both attracts and 
repels. And many officials believe that popular culture can be a potent 
weapon in the American arsenal, a view cannily underlined by Secretary 
of State Colin Powell's appearance on MTV in February in which he 
defended the American campaign against terrorism before a worldwide 
audience of young people. But American politicians have shown little 
appetite for using state auspices to export a broader range of American 
arts than is available through market incentives. 
The opposite is happening in Europe. Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway 
and Sweden have helped finance construction of the new six-story 
Scandinavia House on Park Avenue, run by a nonprofit foundation as a 
kind of permanent World's Fair pavilion for Nordic art exhibitions, 
concerts, lectures and films. Spain will open a $19 million arts center 
on East 49th Street. The Italian Cultural Institute, now operating out 
of a stately but shabby 1919 mansion on Park Avenue, plans to move by 
the end of 2003 to more up-to-date Midtown premises, where it can 
greatly expand its programming. 
The lavishness of these facilities attests to their home countries' 
belief in the importance of culture as a tool of diplomacy. "It's a 
powerful way for governments and nations to gain positive attention," 
says Curtis Barlow, director of cultural affairs for Canada's Department 
of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. "At the senior level of 
government, there is a growing recognition of the utility and importance 
of this kind of work." 
Foreign diplomats and arts administrators alike say that using culture 
for international understanding has taken on heightened significance. 
"Since Sept. 11, people are more conscious of the fact that we live in 
one world and that culture can help bridge our differences," said Karen 
Brooks Hopkins, president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of many 
New York institutions that benefit from foreign governments' promotional 
efforts. 
Schuyler Chapin, the New York City Commissioner for Cultural Affairs 
from 1994 to 2001, said: "Propaganda has nasty connotations as a word, 
but putting a country's strengths and cultural resources in front of 
people is a very persuasive argument about the legitimacy and general 
artistic energy that may be found in country X. New York is in many ways 
the cultural capital of the Western world, so it's natural that 
countries wishing to represent themselves from the standpoint of 
cultural life would gravitate to this city." 
New York has been a stage for a wealth of foreign-supported cultural 
initiatives in the last two years. A partial list includes the Lincoln 
Center Festival performance of the Dutch opera "Writing to Vermeer," a 
retrospective of the Spanish director Luis Buñuel's films at the Museum 
of Modern Art, French dance performances at the Joyce Theater, a 
workshop featuring the German composer Helmut Lachenmann at Columbia 
University, a symposium on 20th-century Swedish design by the Bard 
Graduate Center and an evening of Canadian comedy at the 92nd Street Y 
presented by Michael J. Fox. All were at least partly supported by the 
nations whose art was on display. 
Why would envoys of the Ottawa government help organize an evening of 
Canadian comedy? "Most people think of Canada in terms of Peter Jennings 
or cold weather," said Kevin O'Shea, a diplomat who was involved. In an 
attempt "to get across a more vibrant image," he said, Canada has 
recently tripled its budget for arts promotion in New York. 
The goal of erasing stereotypes comes up repeatedly. Paolo Riani, 
director of the Italian Cultural Institute, is intent on "presenting an 
image of the country that is not just Mafia, not just fashion." Flavio 
Perri, the Brazilian consul general, wants "to show we are more than 
Carnival." 
Explaining why Israel is helping defray the cost of the Batsheva Dance 
Company's appearance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music later this month, 
the cultural attaché, Ofra Ben-Yaacov, says: "We are too much in the 
news because of events. It's important to see that we don't only fight, 
that we have better channels." Max Imgrügh, chairman of the Swiss 
Institute, which receives part of its financing from the government, 
aspires "to show that there's more to Switzerland than bank accounts and 
the Holocaust." 
Similar thinking in the mid-1980's led to the attention-getting Austrian 
Cultural Forum. Austria wanted to break out of the international 
isolation that had been caused by the revelations of President Kurt 
Waldheim's service in a German army unit involved in Nazi war crimes. 
One way to cast the country in a more favorable light, it was decided, 
would be to erect an arresting, architecturally significant building in 
the middle Manhattan. But it's not an approach every nation is prepared 
to take. 
How to make a mark on New York's jam-packed arts scene through less 
concrete measures is the challenge facing dozens of foreign cultural 
representatives. "It's useless to be gallery No. 1,428 or to make a 
small concert when it's the 27th on a given night," says Stephan Nobbe, 
director of the Goethe Institut. For this reason, the $7.5 million that 
the institute spends each year to promote German culture in the United 
States - largely provided by the German Foreign Ministry - is frequently 
used to help stage events at local institutions like the Guggenheim 
Museum or the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center rather than to 
finance presentations at the Goethe Institut itself, on upper Fifth 
Avenue. 
Less prosperous countries are also resourceful at beating their artistic 
drums. Mongolia staged a citywide festival in 2000 that included 
wrestling and archery displays in Central Park and a show of dinosaur 
relics at the American Museum of Natural History, all of which coincided 
with the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition on the theme of the 
Mongolian horse. 
European powers like Germany and France are old hands at cultural 
diplomacy. The Goethe Institut was founded before World War II and 
rapidly became enmeshed in Nazi ideology. But its postwar activities 
have greatly reinforced the democratic credentials of today's Federal 
Republic. France, which employs 85 people in 10 offices around the 
United States to promote French culture, created the Alliance Française 
in 1883 to help regain national prestige after its defeat in the 
Franco-Prussian War. Since then, France has believed that acquainting 
foreigners with its intellectual and cultural traditions buys sympathy 
for its political and economic policies. 
The official use of culture can backfire. Chinese interference in the 
aborted American premiere of the opera "Peony Pavilion" at the 1998 
Lincoln Center Festival demonstrated the perils. After agreeing to send 
the epic work to the festival, Shanghai officials saw a preview of the 
production and denounced it as "feudal," "absurd" and "pornographic." 
They then refused to allow performers to travel to New York. (The 
director pursued other avenues and the opera was staged in 1999.) 
But curators and artistic directors say they can recall no other recent 
instance of overt state intervention in a cultural endeavor here. 
While New York arts institutions insist that their bookings are based on 
artistic criteria, they often rely on cultural attachés to bring new 
artists and productions to their attention. Foreign governments will 
also foot the bill for curators and presenters to travel abroad to see 
the work. "They provide us with a knowledge base," said Robert Harth, 
artistic director of Carnegie Hall, which does not accept subsidized 
trips. 
The degree to which United States arts institutions receive help from 
foreign nations varies widely. Ms. Hopkins of the Brooklyn Academy says 
"it would be tough" for the Academy to keep up its high level of 
international programming without diplomatic backing. At the Museum of 
Modern Art, foreign financing has been modest in contrast to the overall 
cost of any exhibition, says the director, Glenn Lowry. But state 
support for shows like the recent Giacometti retrospective, backed by 
Switzerland, helped gain additional money from foundations and private 
donors. 
Once government backing is lined up, cultural attachés often go further, 
acting as go-betweens to find corporate sponsors from their own 
countries. Jean-René Gehan, the French cultural counselor, said he had 
helped arrange sponsorships by the media giant Vivendi Universal, the 
aircraft manufacturer Dassault and the Société Générale bank. 
Officially supported culture used to flow more readily across the 
Atlantic. During the 1950's and 60's, the United States Information 
Agency flooded Europe with American orchestras, dance groups, art 
exhibits and jazz performances as well as the Broadway musicals "Porgy 
and Bess" and "My Fair Lady." 
No sooner had the communist threat waned after 1991, however, than 
United States initiatives were cut back severely. In 1999, the U.S.I.A. 
itself was folded into the State Department. The United States dropped 
out of Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany. The network of American libraries 
and reading rooms overseas has been reduced to 168, from a high of 254 
in 1963. Only 22 percent are traditional lending libraries; these 
"information resource centers," as they're now called, often consist of 
a single computer terminal. 
Sept. 11 and its aftermath raise the question whether slashing cultural 
diplomacy was prudent. Editorial writers are asking how best to combat 
distortions about the United States, and the film critic David Denby, 
among others, has urged that cultural diplomacy be revived in the 
Islamic world. Writing in the online magazine Slate, he advocated 
sending a wider range of films abroad as well as dispatching poets, 
professors and cultural journalists: "We can do it not by boasting or 
exhorting, but by describing, illustrating, embodying - that is, by 
showing up." 
America has long had an aversion to official involvement in the arts. 
Although most foreign countries have national ministries of culture and 
regard protection of their artistic heritage as a public responsibility, 
Americans have been wary of such bureaucratic control. From the 
Depression-era Works Projects Administration through more recent 
upheavals involving the National Endowment for the Arts, federal support 
of culture has set off heated debate. 
Patricia Harrison, the assistant secretary of state for Educational and 
Cultural Affairs, agrees that there's a need to refocus cultural 
diplomacy to correct misperceptions abroad. Along with cultural 
programming, Ms. Harrison oversees the Fulbright Program, which offers 
4,500 grants a year to foreigners to study in the United States and to 
Americans to go abroad. "We need more opportunities for dialogue," she 
said, but she cautioned that that it could take years for any new 
cultural programs to have an impact. Ms. Harrison said the Bush 
administration had not substantially reversed the cuts in cultural 
diplomacy, but added, "We have put a tourniquet on the hemorrhaging." 
Joseph S. Nye Jr., dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, 
argues that America's commercial cultural exports already make up a form 
of "soft power" that influences other societies by implicitly promoting 
American values like personal freedom, upward mobility and democratic 
openness. But he also believes that the government can't do much to 
offset the hostility that popular products like "Baywatch" or Britney 
Spears videos can provoke. "Efforts to balance the scene by supporting 
exports of American high culture - libraries and art exhibits - are at 
best a useful palliative," Professor Nye said. 
To be sure, advocates of reviving American cultural diplomacy do not 
suggest that Washington merely trumpet the upper reaches of American 
artistic achievement. "We can't simply say we have great novelists and 
great architects," said the historian Richard Pells, author of "Not Like 
Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated and Transformed American Culture 
Since World War II." 
"But we need to engage people abroad on why they feel uncomfortable when 
they encounter America in their own living rooms," Professor Pells said. 
"Many people interpret America in terms of its most visible artifacts - 
the Golden Arches or Mickey Mouse. American cultural diplomacy could 
demystify these artifacts and engage in a dialogue on why they're so 
popular." 
 
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