Wendy Luers, long-time TMU grantee, President of The Foundation for a Civil Society, and Co-Founder and Co-Chair of The Project on Justice in Times of Transition, recently published an article in the Washington Diplomat on the importance of cultural diplomacy and the “Soft Power of Art,” the article’s fitting title.
For more than a decade, the Washington Diplomat has been published as an independent monthly newspaper with a readership of more than 100,000. It is distributed to all Washington-based foreign embassies, the United Nations in New York, the World Bank and IMF Group, the State Department, Capitol Hill, the White House and many other points of influence within the greater metropolitan area.
Congratulations from all of us at TMU, Wendy!
Soft Power of Art
Lifelong Cultural Commitment Pays Diplomatic Dividends
by Wendy Luers
The power of culture can often be underestimated as a diplomatic tool, but
cultural exchange can not only serve as a universal icebreaker, it can
tear down walls and build bridges between the most hardened of enemies. It
may not turn foes into instant friends, but it does allow nations to find
points of commonality that transcend politics.
As a young Stanford University graduate working as a journalist with San
Francisco Magazine and Time in the 1960s and ’70s in San Francisco, I
quickly realized the prevailing counterculture was having a profound
effect on my worldview. For five years, working for Amnesty International,
I engaged prominent cultural figures such as singer Joan Baez, playwright
Arthur Miller and novelist Kurt Vonnegut to work closely with politicians,
music publishers and activists to help free political prisoners (such as
Czech dissident Václav Havel) and denounce repressive governments. It was
a time when artists, musicians, playwrights, writers and intellectuals
actively shaped the discourse of world politics.
This spirit of cultural engagement would remain a powerful force
throughout my life after I married William Luers, the U.S. ambassador to
Venezuela, and started the Foundation for Art and Preservation in
Embassies (FAPE) in 1986.
When my children and I first joined Bill in Caracas in 1979, America’s
relationship with Venezuela was of the utmost diplomatic importance
because of oil. Conversely, many influential Venezuelans went to the
United States regularly for education, culture, medical attention and
shopping. As a result, relations between the two nations tended to be
narrow and one-sided. Bill, a seasoned career Foreign Service officer, and
I, having served on various theater and museum boards, worked as a team to
bring prominent American cultural figures to visit Venezuelans in their
Arthur Miller, photographer Inge Morath, playwright Edward Albee,
novelists John Updike and John Cheever, as well as artists such as Richard
Diebenkorn, Frank Stella and Larry Rivers all came as our guests. During
their stay, we actively hosted gatherings and organized trips to connect
them with the Venezuelan political, cultural and economic establishment,
including numerous media appearances. These events were an invaluable
public diplomacy effort that showcased American culture and belied the
image of the United States as merely a commercial and military
heavyweight. In fact, after one such event, a euphoric leftist Venezuelan
journalist remarked, “Mr. Ambassador, after tonight, you can say anything
you want about the price of oil.”
However, cultural diplomacy wasn’t simply about gatherings and press.
While at post, we actively showed how we, as Americans, had a deep-rooted
respect for Venezuelan culture and traditions. We often traveled deep into
the Venezuelan Amazon jungle to visit the Yanomami, Makiritare and other
tribes. As we were leaving in 1982, an exhibit of our extensive collection
of folk and tribal art was televised. Our respect for their culture
underscored for Venezuelans the richness inherent in their country, and
our appreciation of it.
Our next posting to the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic was very
different. When we moved to Prague in December 1983, the warmth, vibrancy
and freedom of Venezuela seemed light years away. It was the height of the
Cold War and the atmosphere was austere and closed to outside culture —
especially American. No Western television, print publications or radio
were allowed inside the state-controlled country at the time. The U.S.
ambassador’s residence, Petschek Palace, was enormous and extraordinarily
beautiful, with spectacular paintings and rugs as well as exquisite
antique furniture left behind as the Jewish homeowners fled in 1939. The
only problem was that the residence was completely bugged, and all the
staff had to go to “spy school” before they were hired.
To address this repressive climate we, again, turned to cultural
diplomacy. We invited many of the famous American writers and artists who
had come to Caracas, plus others such as poet Galway Kinnell, economist
John Kenneth Galbraith, diplomat George Kennan and many others. Using the
residence to bring prominent Americans together with their counterparts,
often dissidents, was extraordinarily gratifying and compelling.
On one occasion, we hosted a preview of important American paintings we
had borrowed. The authorities withheld the mailed invitations until Bill
had the embassy drivers hand-deliver them, and suddenly they were in
everyone’s mailbox. Several hundred people braved being photographed by
the secret police to come. Knowing that most contemporary artists were not
deemed “official” by the state and therefore could not see foreign
publications, we gave away hundreds of contemporary catalogues donated by
the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
I then began to write a history of the residence, which ultimately led to
my interest in embassy preservation — and the founding in 1986 of the
Friends of Art and Preservation in Embassies (FAPE) with Leonore
Annenberg, Carol Price and Lee Kimche McGrath, then director of the State
Department’s Art in Embassies loan program. FAPE, an educational nonprofit
(now called the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies), was
formed to assist State in its various programs designed to exhibit and
preserve fine and decorative art in U.S. embassies around the world.
Our work with FAPE coincided with many of our adventures in Prague. As
strong believers in the power of the arts to affect diplomatic relations,
we invited the jazz musician and then provost of Tulane University, Fred
Starr, to give a concert on the only venue we could — our lawn! More than
1,000 people came to hear American jazz, all photographed by the secret
police as they entered. In 1985, we took writer Kurt Vonnegut to a distant
union hall where a group of creative Czech students transformed “Cat’s
Cradle” into a brilliant play using a rolling cart made of plumbing pipes.
Kurt was astounded — it influenced every play that he would write after
In fact, we saw so much of dissidents like Václav and Olga Havel, writer
Ivan Klíma, translator Jaroslav Koran, rock star Michal Kocab, and
journalists Michael Zantovsky and Jiri Dienstbier that the communist
Czechoslovak government filed a formal complaint with the State
Department. In a meeting in Washington, the Czech ambassador said, “You
have to choose between them and us.” Bill replied, “Don’t ask me to
choose.” As the world now knows, following the Velvet Revolution in 1989,
these dissidents went on to became president, foreign minister, ambassador
and political leaders of a free Czechoslovakia.
A career diplomat, Bill has always believed that effective, intelligent
diplomacy is conducted on many levels: official and non-official. Getting
to know people and their culture, while representing the best of the
United States, by no means is limited to trade and security issues.
Whenever we represented the United States abroad, we always employed the
arts as a means to encourage mutual respect, cross-cultural understanding
and friendship among people. We returned to New York in 1986, when Bill
was named president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and we have never
lost our belief in the effectiveness of cultural diplomacy.
When we founded FAPE in 1986, we sought to engage the enormous
philanthropic private sector and artistic community in America’s
representation abroad. Thanks to the ongoing support of presidents, first
ladies, secretaries of states, ambassadors and many individuals, FAPE’s
collection now includes work by more than 180 of America’s most celebrated
artists — all donated to U.S. diplomatic facilities abroad. The
organization has raised more than $56 million in art and monetary
contributions to date.
FAPE’s current focus, as it heads into its 25th year, is on providing
permanent site-specific works of art at the various new U.S. embassies
being built around the world that, given security requirements,
unfortunately look like fortresses. Since 1999, FAPE has completed 12 such
projects, and five are currently under way. Artists in this worldwide
collection include: Lynda Benglis (Mumbai); Louise Bourgeois (Beijing);
Ellsworth Kelly (Beijing and Berlin); Maya Lin (Istanbul); Dorothea
Rockburne (Kingston, Jamaica); Joel Shapiro (Ottawa, Canada, and
Guangzhou, China); Michael Singer (Athens); and Elyn Zimmerman (Dar es
Recently, the State Department asked FAPE to tackle its largest project to
date — the new U.S. Mission to the United Nations (USUN) in New York,
which opened in August 2010. Besides contributing three site-specific
installations by Ron Gorchov, Sol LeWitt and Odili Donald Odita, works by
more than 50 artists have been placed in more than 180 spaces throughout
The USUN collection is a manifestation of our philosophy on cultural
diplomacy. Given the large international presence in New York, FAPE wanted
to provide a collection that represents our country’s diverse culture,
including artists born abroad but who have since become U.S. citizens. For
example, we’ve acquired works by Shahla Arbabi of Iran, Ilya and Emilia
Kabakov of Russia and Julian Lethbridge of Sri Lanka.
Time and again, cultural diplomacy offers a way to interact with people
all over the world, underscoring that the United States is a
multidimensional power, known as much for its artistic, intellectual and
political freedom, as for its economic, military and political might. As
members of the diplomatic corps as well as political appointees, it is not
only a privilege but also our obligation to present a holistic image of
the United States — one that showcases our fundamental respect for
pluralistic beliefs, diversity and world culture.
Wendy Luers is president emerita of the Foundation for Art and
Preservation in Embassies. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign
Relations and the Women’s Foreign Policy Group. She is married to William
H. Luers, president of the United Nations Association of the United States
of America, former president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and former
U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia (1983-86) and Venezuela (1978-82).
N.B.: The continuing success and notable impact of FAPE is due to the
extraordinary leadership of Chair, Jo Carole Lauder, Presidents Ann Gund
and Eden Rafshoon and Executive Director Jennifer Duncan and a generous
and enthusiastic board of directors.