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Art Works Abroad

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Fortifying America's Embassies

When Barack Obama was campaigning for the presidency, he promised to improve America’s image overseas — an image that many around the world believe his predecessor had sullied. But long before Obama gave an iPod to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, a small group of Americans were turning to art as a source of “soft power” to foster positive international relations.

The Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies (FAPE) was founded in 1986 by four women to support the State Department’s efforts to promote U.S. culture overseas, according to Jennifer Duncan, FAPE’s current director. The idea is to change perceptions through cultural enrichment, and what could be a more visible vehicle than through art at the very place foreigners directly associate with America?

“The embassy is very often the only image that a citizen of a host country gets of our country,” said Vera Blinken, vice chairwoman of FAPE’s board of directors. “They go to the residence or they go to the embassy for events or they go to the embassy to apply for a visa and that’s what they see. So it’s very important for us to project the best of what we have.”

More precisely, what they see are works created especially for a host country in the form of sculpture, painting, prints and more that focus on American values. “What we’re hoping is that with all these site-specific works, our image of freedom of expression, freedom of speech, is enhanced,” said Blinken, whose husband, Donald Blinken, was the U.S. ambassador to Hungary from 1994 to 1997.

The artists are not paid for their work, which becomes the property of the embassy where it resides. FAPE pays for fabrication and installation costs and has raised million in art and monetary donations to place the work of 145 American artists — including Ellsworth Kelly, Sol LeWitt and Elyn Zimmerman — in 70 U.S. embassies.

Although the foundation had done restoration work on historic properties, it shifted its focus after the U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998 and the 2001 terrorist attacks. “The State Department started a very vigorous embassy construction schedule given the fact that security at the majority of our buildings overseas was not secure for embassy personnel,” Duncan said. “While they were working on these projects, there was an opportunity for us to contribute a site-specific work of art.”

The type of art depends on location. For example, when FAPE worked with Joel Shapiro in 1999 on the first site-specific project at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa, Canada, the building’s location on a hill in a central part of the city made it clear that his bronze sculpture, “Conjunction,” would go outdoors.

“The one thing that we try to do as much as possible is to make these works as public as possible, because obviously we want the host country to appreciate this and get an opportunity to learn about who we are through these works of art,” Duncan said.

“Because some of these works tend to be rather large, they can be seen from far away,” Blinken added. “If someone is driving by in Berlin, for example, in driving to the Brandenburg Gate, they cannot help but see the Sol LeWitt [‘Wall Drawing #1256: Five Pointed Stars’], which is in our embassy on a corner with glass walls.”

For its next installation, FAPE is working with abstract artist Dorothea Rockburne on a 40-foot mural titled “Homage to Colin Powell,” honoring the U.S. Army general and former secretary of State whose parents were from Jamaica. The painting will be a gift to the U.S. Embassy in Kingston.

Most interesting is the art’s ability to open a dialogue. Although FAPE’s main goal is to project American values overseas, the resulting conversation is a pleasant byproduct. For instance, Duncan traveled to Africa for the installation of Zimmerman’s “Assembly of Friends” sculpture in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 2004. The six geometric shapes surround a pool rimmed with red granite, a material the artist found in Michigan but knew to be common in Tanzanian art. The effort worked. “The look on these people’s faces: ‘You found our granite all the way in your country?’ It just created this amazing dialogue,” Duncan recalled. “Knowing that there’s a chance that I may never go back to Africa and that these people may never come to the United States, I hope that these works are just one way for us to give them an opportunity to learn about more about who we are as a country.”

Blinken, who was born in Hungary and fled to the United States with her mother in 1950, found that art helped her develop relationships when she returned there. “It is such a universal language,” she said. “You know, when you sort of don’t know what to talk about at first? That’s what you talk about. You talk about what is on your table, what is hanging on the wall, what is the sculpture outside. It’s a very safe subject and I found that it always broke the ice.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 7, 2014