Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Remarks on “From Turtle Bay to Broadway: the Power of Art in American Diplomacy” at the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies (FAPE) Dinner

usun.state.gov; via PDC

image from

Ambassador Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
March 7, 2016

Thank you so much. I think everybody else’s schedule here is as complicated as mine – absent North Korea. [Laughter.] But thank you all for being here – I work here, above the store. And thank you, Jo Carole. Robert, Darren, and all of FAPE’s staff and supporters – it is a true pleasure to welcome you here to the U.S. Mission tonight. A special thanks in advance to our Hamilton panel – Ron, Jeff, Chris, and our facilitator, the great Peggy Noonan. It is rare that I get to speak to Grammy and Tony award winners – not too many of those across the street [Laughter.] So let me just start by noting that I too am a musician. I sing in a band of other UN Ambassadors called “UN Rocks.” [Laughter.] The Korean Ambassador plays the drums – this is not a joke, it’s real life [Laughter.]; the Thai Ambassador plays the bass; the Serbian and Danish ambassadors play the electric guitars; and the ambassador from Tonga plays the keyboard. And I wanted to take this opportunity to announce that I have some availability for gigs starting around January 20th, 2017. [Laughter.] In case anybody is interested.
Before talking about FAPE and its tremendous contributions to American diplomacy, I want to share a few stories about the impact that I have seen art have on the work that we diplomats do every day. I went to see Hamilton last May, when it was still Off Broadway. I invited the other ambassadors on the UN Security Council – don’t ask how I got 15 tickets. [Laughter.] I was a bit nervous going in, because rap isn’t easy on non-native English speakers, and I knew enough American history to anticipate that a few of the countries in attendance might be in for some rough treatment.
Soon enough I was looking over at the British Ambassador to the United Nations – Queen Elizabeth’s ambassador to the United Nations – as the Queen’s predecessor King George jauntily sang about waging war against America, promising, “I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.” Not long after that, Hamilton himself went after Jefferson for the sin of spending too much time in France. I was stealing glances at the French representative as Hamilton sang, “We almost died in a trench / While you were off getting high with the French.” [Laughter.]
But of course everyone loved it. My British counterpart said the King George song was his absolutely favorite part. And the evening earned us great goodwill, and strengthened my relationships with my counterparts, who still marvel at the fact that I was able to secure 15 tickets to Hamilton. [Laughter.]
The truth is that seeing Hamilton together advanced our diplomatic efforts in ways that only art can. The night reminded the ambassadors that the United States is much more – so much more – than our official policy positions. We are our history of rebellion and self-improvement; we are our music, including our rapping founding fathers; and we are our culture. Hamilton introduced the ambassadors not just to a great musical, but to the story of our democratic origins; it delivered a stealthy masters course in core American principles like open debate and multi-culturalism. These are the same principles that we’re trying to advance everyday – sometimes against stiff odds –through our diplomacy. But rarely with such power and always with less rhythm. [Laughter.] As a slew of foreign leaders now try to change their constitutions so as to cling to power, a singing George Washington, played by Chris Jackson who’s here tonight, made a far more powerful case for term limits than any diplomat’s speech.
I’ll give you one more vivid example of the power of art to change hearts and minds. Last week I had occasion to take 17 ambassadors to see the remarkable musical, Fun Home. At a time when being gay is still a crime in more than 75 countries, we are always looking for ways to encourage greater support for LGBTI rights at the United Nations and around the world. And by humanizing its subjects in a way that made them thoroughly accessible to the other ambassadors, Fun Home did this brilliantly. In a discussion with the cast and producers afterwards, the ambassador from El Salvador said, “I wondered why I could be nearly two hours so involved, suffering with you, laughing with you, when nothing really special happens onstage. What is the message? To me it is very clear. You were telling us: ‘Look, you are me. We are together and we are the same.’”
In the run-up to last year’s General Assembly, we installed poster-size photos of 20 female political prisoners in the windows downstairs of the Mission’s lobby. And the visuals caught people’s attention, and helped a campaign around these female political prisoners gain momentum – to date, six of the 20 have been released. We’ve also used imagery to press for greater action on the Syrian refugee crisis. And just today we opened a new exhibit in our lobby, you might have seen this coming up, featuring art created by Syrian refugee teenagers. The scenes of a mother mourning a son lost at sea and that of two siblings comforting each other as they wait for admission provide insight into the refugee experience in a way that words never could.
Thanks to FAPE, we don’t have to take every foreign diplomat to the theater or mobilize amateur art to pack a punch. In the 30 years since FAPE’s founding, you have raised more than $85 million in contributions, and provided art to embassies in more than 140 countries – including permanent works by more than 200 pre-eminent American artists. These pieces have an impact not just on the diplomats whose days are brightened every day, but on the countless visitors who pass through our facilities and see our teams and our nation in new ways. Thanks to FAPE, among the many amazing pieces I have, I have a wall-size inspiring photograph of the Lincoln Memorial in my office – it causes people to stop in their tracks – and enchanting Syrian-American art in my residence, a chance to show my respect for a great civilization at a time of terrible hardship. I want to thank all of FAPE’s patrons and supporters here tonight who have done so much to encourage cross-cultural understanding in the international community. Your efforts over the past three decades have created permanent homes for artists in U.S. governmental, State Department spaces all across the globe.
Let me close with one final observation about the relationship between art and diplomacy. A few months ago, my family invited a newly arrived family of Syrian refugees to our home for dinner. Toward the end of the evening, as my husband and I were talking haltingly through an interpreter to the parents in this family, I looked over across the room and saw my two kids sitting on the floor with three of the Syrian refugee family kids who had joined us. They were just sitting around a coffee table, and they were drawing together. Their kids spoke only Arabic, mine only English – but language barriers crumbled before a shared love of what markers could create on the page. Everything else melted away.
Art has the same ability to bridge cultural and political gulfs between adults, and I’ve seen it happen. Therein lies FAPE’s greatest gift: the art you provide to our embassies affords us the daily opportunity to connect with our counterparts from around the world in new ways, and to deepen the relationships on which we depend. So let me welcome you all again to the U.S. Mission – but above all, let me reiterate my eternal thanks to you for what you do every day to support FAPE. And FAPE’s staff, and all the people who have led this remarkable organization over the years, let me thank you for the difference you make every day. Thank you.

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