Cultural Diplomacy: Where Nordic Lights Shine

Participants at Cultural Diplomacy forum hosted by Origin Theatre

Participants at Cultural Diplomacy forum hosted by Origin Theatre

What do you get when you put together a theatre director from Ireland, one from the Netherlands, some Scandinavian diplomats, and add in artists living in NYC?  The answer is a great discussion on cultural diplomacy!  Last Saturday Origin Theatre   brought together diplomats from the Nordic countries, as well as theatre directors and actors from both the US and Scandinavia. What could have been a deadly dull affair was instead lively, informative and fun.  While this is due in no small part to the moderator, Erwin Maas and to the participants, the use of the “long table” format contributed to its success. It was the first time I had seen such a set up, and it’s name is the perfect description.  There was a long table with chairs in the center of the room, with the audience seated around them.  At the beginning it was the diplomats and artists who sat at the table and spoke.   As the discussions continued, participants left the table, and new ones from the audience – lay people, artists, students – took those seats (you could speak only if you were seated at the table).  By the end of the discussion, about 90 minutes later, almost none of the original participants were at the table.

At the beginning, the participants offered their definitions of “cultural diplomacy” but agreed with one participant’s observation that “cultural diplomacy” is rather abstract, whereas “international cultural exchange” tells you that something of value is being exchanged. For all the countries, the latter was very important; for the most part the Nordics have moved away from hosting government-organized festivals abroad to employing a more collaborative and network-based model, focusing on the exchange of people, on their conversations, on building long-term sustainable partnerships. Funding is often determined by independent bodies, and it is the diplomat’s role to support their home country artists on a strategic level, so their work can be seen in the US.

In general,  the overall goal of these efforts is to get American cultural institutions interested in what’s happening in Scandinavia;  in some cases, cultural outreach in the US is expected to yield increased tourism back home. Often artists are expected to give back, to contribute to society in return for their government funding.  Some countries also have the expressed goal of renewing and developing their national arts and cultural offerings.   Because Nordic countries are small, by exporting their cultural output (music, film theatre, dance), they can help their artists reach larger audiences and grow.  The arts can also serve as an international platform for raising and discussing political issues in ways that are more complex and open. Artists have questions and a desire to effect change – cultural exchanges are a way to find out how other countries do it.

Smaller countries depend on translation to get their works out into the wider world, with one participant noting that English is so dominant, there’s a real danger of a language like Icelandic disappearing. (I know from my own experience in French and German, that no matter how good, computer translations don’t cut it. Translation is a very, very important and under appreciated skill; we really need to value translators and pay them well.)  However, it’s also often very hard to translate certain words or feelings; humor is  especially hard to translate, not only from the perspective of language, but also because of the different ways that societies view certain issues, such as incest and violence. 

Obtaining visas for Scandinavian artists to work in the US is also a problem, especially for US theatre companies, like Origin, who can only hire green card holders.   The Nordic consulates spend time counseling their artists on how to make it in the US, trying to promote their US appearances and exhibits, as well as helping US institutions to invite and sponsor Scandinavian artists. However, for local NYC based institutions, it’s hard to maintain a relationship with any of the consulates, as the diplomats are only here for around 4 years. 

There was a very lively discussion around the effects of cultural exchange, and whether this has led to a homogenization of the arts, or whether, by collaborating with people from other cultures, you learn from each other and wind up creating a hybrid culture.

While there was no resolution to that issue, several of the participants noted that being in New York City, you meet people from every corner of the world, and art can open that up.  I say Amen to that!

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