The Art of Diplomacy: Exhibitions and National Promotion

Article excerpt

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 Francaise, 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. …