Gareth Harris, ft.com; (re the below statement,"Significantly, the piece was made in collaboration with the US Department of Defence," see John Brown, "A Modest Proposal: Make the Pentagon Our Very Own Ministry of Culture!" .)
Dignitaries visiting the new US embassy in Nine Elms, south London, which is due for completion in late 2016, will encounter a commanding, site-specific work that is America incarnate. Los Angeles-based artist Mark Bradford’s work, “The Constitution”, will span 32 canvases and cover the embassy atrium. This gargantuan, patriotic piece will incorporate the entire text of the US Constitution .
Bradford was commissioned by Art in Embassies (AIE), a US governmental body which, proclaim state officials, “has been speaking the universal language of cultural diplomacy” for more than 50 years. AIE was established by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1953, and was formally made a public-private arts organisation by the Kennedy administration in 1963.
AIE’s curators organise temporary loan exhibitions for ambassadorial residences worldwide with works on loan from artists, museums, dealers, corporate collections, private collectors and others. The length of a loan is usually about three years. Recently it put together a contemporary art exhibition for the US ambassador to Spain, James Costos, that included more than 80 works by artists such as Ed Ruscha, Julie Mehretu and Theaster Gates.
Virginia Shore, AIE deputy director and chief curator, says the Madrid display is easily its “most extensive loan exhibition in recent history”. Most of the works are on loan from high-profile artists, dealers, foundations, and private collections in the US and Spain including the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in New York.
AIE also creates permanent collections, acquiring and commissioning works by US and host country artists. Since 2000, more than 58 such collections have been created and installed in diplomatic facilities worldwide. “The art humanises the buildings and connects our countries culturally,” Shore says. “Highlighting local artists is critical to this public diplomacy effort.”
AIE curators also follow “artists’ careers, and the market, tracking down pieces at outlets such as student exhibitions, art fairs and biennales”, Shore says, and artists can submit works online for consideration,
“Funding for the purchase of art for most new US embassy and consulate projects is included as part of the project budget, allocated at 0.5 per cent of the value of the construction contract,” says an AIE statement.
British artist Idris Khan has been commissioned by AIE to create a new composite for the US embassy in Islamabad — a stamp painting incorporating English text and Arabic calligraphy — which is due to go on show by summer of 2016.
Another key AIE commission is due to go on show at the new US embassy in Kabul this year. Serving Abroad ... Through Their Eyes (2012) is a video montage by the Chicago-based artist Lincoln Schatz that incorporates audio and images selected from photographs submitted by military and US Foreign Service personnel.
Significantly, the piece was made in collaboration with the US Department of Defence. Schatz is convinced that Art in Embassies is fit for purpose. “Their curators understand the power of art to communicate, no question,” he says, though he wonders how the work will be received in Afghanistan.
Philadelphia-born artist Graham Caldwell has also made a number of works for AIE. These include a glass and stainless steel sculpture (“Mechanical Cloud”) installed at the US embassy in Kiev in 2011, and “Cochlia III”, another glass piece unveiled in Istanbul in 2003.
“I was invited, along with another artist, to Istanbul on a whirlwind cultural exchange for three days of studio visits, discussions, demonstrations at a glassblowing facility, and slide presentations. It was during the early part of the Iraq war and most of the rest of the world was horrified by what the US was up to,” he says.
“I was able to vent, listen to, commiserate and connect with artists, writers and students in a personal way that picked away at some of the more monolithic aspects of nation and state,” he adds. His insights underline how AIE advocates soft power through art and culture, promulgating the more humane side of the superpower.
But there is another organisation flying the flag overseas for the US with its own brand of cultural diplomacy. The non-profit Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies (Fape) was established in 1986 by a group of philanthropists and collectors; its current chair is New York-based collector Jo Carole Lauder.
The foundation gained momentum in 1989 when the Fape print collection was founded. Frank Stella was the first to donate a print (“The Symphony”) and, since then, artists such as Jasper Johns, Julie Mehretu and Jeff Koons have contributed works.
In 2013 it established a photography collection with works by Tina Barney and William Wegman (Cindy Sherman came on board last year). “We send out around 15 to 20 mini-collections annually [to embassies] and cover all costs,” Jennifer Duncan, Fape director, says.
The artists donate their works. “The money we raise goes towards the fabrication and installation of the pieces. The artists do not receive any monetary compensation,” Duncan says.
This week Fape announced that it has received a donation of $250,000 from the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. The American artist, who died last year, had been involved with Fape since 1997, and the donation will establish an endowment for the maintenance and care of Fape’s Collection.
Site-specific commissions, mainly at new embassies, are also part of Fape’s remit. Previous commissions have been awarded to artists including Lynda Benglis, whose abstract bronze sculpture “Paschim” (2010) is in the US embassy in Mumbai. Sculptor Don Gummer is working on a new commission for the US embassy in Moscow, which he describes as “a tall, vertical sculpture that will represent our multicultural energy”.
Fape is advised by a committee led by Robert Storr, dean of the Yale University School of Art. “Artists will get a work made the way they want it to be made through us,” he says, highlighting a 41-foot-tall mural by Dorothea Rockburne (“Folded Sky, Homage to Colin Powell”), that was unveiled at the US embassy in Kingston, Jamaica, in 2014.
Duncan points out that works by Wegman, William Clark and Alvin Coburn are housed at the current US embassy in London. “We’ll wait and see about other new works for the new embassy,” she says, coyly. Storr says: “We’re on amicable terms with Art in Embassies but don’t dovetail with the organisation.”
And how are artists reacting in these tense times, during the war on terror? “We do not place any limitations on artists, and they are generally very respectful and always understand political sensitivities,” Duncan says.
No artists have declined to participate because of concerns over US foreign policy, she adds. AIE’s website stresses that “the choice of art has to be compatible with the values of the host country and reflect the artistic range and cultural values of both countries”.
AIE has asked Ohio-born artist Jenny Holzer to make a work for the new base in Nine Elms; she will set into its stone walls quotations chosen in part by US and UK students. I ask Holzer, who is known for her politically engaged art, if she had any doubts about the commission. Does she disagree with some aspects of US foreign policy? Her diplomatic answer: “I like art as policy.”