NEW YORK, Nov. 5 (UPI) -- A little-publicized U.S. State Department program has been putting American art in American embassies around the world for 38 years, showcasing the nation's cultural achievements at a cost of about $1 million a year.
Unlike similar programs undertaken by other countries that loan art to the embassies from their national collections, the State Department's Art in Embassies program allows ambassadors and their families to choose art from a list of artworks offered for loan by museums, private collectors, dealers and a number of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, who has lent paintings to U.S. embassies in Madrid, Rome, Vienna, Sofia, Seoul and Mexico City.
As a result, the art selected for display can be more varied than the usual paintings and sculptures seen in foreign embassies. American embassies have displayed such disparate objects as patchwork quilts and other folk art objects including decorative weathervanes, art glass, photographs and contemporary art such as Bruce Nauman's neon constructions.
American diplomats report these are viewed with great interest and often commented upon by overseas diplomats, statesmen, legislators, and VIPs who are regularly entertained at U.S. embassies, as well as American visitors who expect to see the usual display of copies of presidential portraits and non-descript landscape paintings.
New York art dealer Arnie Glimcher, a supporter of the Art in Embassies, said he considers the program a high priority diplomatic endeavor.
"I think one of America's great products is its art, and it seems to me imperative that in locations where world leaders meet that the environment contain some of the great achievements of our culture," Glimcher told United Press International. "I think it is very important that art functions as an ambassador itself."
Glimcher has served as an adviser to the permanent U.S. representatives to the United Nations who occupy an apartment in the Waldorf Towers in midtown Manhattan during their appointment. The current occupant is John Negroponte who is selecting his own choices of art to replace art picked by his predecessor, Richard C. Holbrooke.
One of the important works selected by Holbrooke was Jasper Johns' "Flags," an oil on canvas representation of two American flags displayed side by side. It hangs over the fireplace in the drawing room of the Waldorf Towers embassy quarters not far from two of Childe Hassam's Impressionist paintings of New York streets aflutter with American flags.
Other works that have been displayed in the U.N. ambassador's apartment are Rocky Mountain scenes by Albert Bierstadt, sculptures by Alexander Calder, Louise Nevelson, and Maya Lin, shadow boxed assemblages by Joseph Cornell, a self-portrait by Chuck Close, and photographs by Irvng Penn and Cindy Sherman. Whatever art Negroponte chooses will constitute a showcase for the Art in Embassies program.
"The Waldorf Towers apartment is the only U.S. diplomatic residence in the nation," Gwen Berlin, director of the program pointed out in an interview. "It is the only way for people in this country as well as the United Nations community to have an opportunity to see the type of work we do."
Berlin said embassy art can be either general in nature or quite specific in its reference to the location of the embassy.
As an example, she cited a display of American textiles in the American embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, as a tie-in to Tashkent's importance as a stop on the ancient silk route from China to the West. Another exhibition at the embassy in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on the delta of the Ganges and Jumna Rivers, had water as its theme, and a show in Sarajevo, Bosnia, emphasized recovery after the American Civil War.
Costs of a curatorial staff, shipping the artworks, and insurance is absorbed by he State Department. Berlin estimated there are some 3,500 works of art on display in 170 U.S. diplomatic missions at any one time with a conservatively estimated overall value of about $100 million. The art displayed in the U.N. ambassador's apartment represents about a quarter of this evaluation.