Interview with Elizabeth Ash – Program Manager for Art in Embassies Program, U.S. Dept. of State
The first embrace of American culture is often through visual art for many people around the world. A decades old program in the U.S. Department of State enables American art to be exhibited in U.S. facilities in over 180 countries. Elizabeth Ash, a manager for the Art in Embassies Program, tells us about her special project extending the value and vastness of American art into far reaches of the globe. Who benefits from such a program, what are the challenges and …where do I sign up?
Paula: Tell me about your job, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth: I’m a program manager at the Art in Embassies Program at the State Department. What I do at Art in Embassies is outreach, cultural diplomacy and public diplomacy. I created an initiative called American Artists Abroad, about 7 years ago, in the fall of 2002. The idea is to send some of the U.S. artists – whose work we exhibit through the program — overseas, where they engage in a series of outreach programs. It’s a short-term exchange, typically one to two weeks.
So, for example, I have a gentleman leaving tomorrow to go to Kazakhstan, for about 10 days. He is an artist – a painter and photographer from Kansas – so he is literally flying around the world! From Kansas to Kazakhstan! And he is going to lead some Master classes there; he is going to lecture about his own creative development and life as an artist, how he makes his living as an artist. He will meet with Kazakh students and Kazakh artists, and also the media – he’ll do interviews and meet government officials.
So that is the American Artists Abroad initiative, and the aim is to extend the impact of the Art in Embassies exhibitions.
Paula: That’s interesting because my thought was the Art in Embassies program was a wonderful but staid kind of deal – where art gets shipped and hung on walls but only the people invited to Embassy parties get to see American art. So, you’re saying real people get to see the art.
Elizabeth: The way it works with Art in Embassies is the exhibitions are actually in the U.S. ambassadors’ residences – not the embassies. Which is better in the sense that the embassy, for the most part, is an office buildingwhere most international visitors only visit the visa section.
But the residence is where the ambassador entertains, or can invite groups to come in and look at the exhibition . . . and literally tens of thousands of people visit these residences every year, around the world.
Paula: So, the residency is more public than the embassy?
Elizabeth: In a sense. The ambassador will host all sorts of events, from the 4th of July celebration, which is often quite large, to intimate dinners for 10 people – it’s ongoing throughout the year.
The exhibitions are in the residences, and they are there for the tenure of the ambassador. So each exhibition is unique to each ambassador. The exhibition is up for about 2-3 years – that is the average length of term for an ambassador. And we also publish, to go along with the exhibition, an exhibition catalog or brochure – typically in English and the language or languages of the host country.
So, in Kazakhstan, to go back to that for an example, the publication is in English, Russian and Kazakh. And the publications are great tools because if someone comes to the residence and sees the exhibition, they can take away something tangible – a product they can read and take out and share with friends and colleagues.
Another way we extend the impact of these exhibitions is to send an artist. Programming for that artist from Kansas – Phil Epp – is not only going to take place at the residence, which is now in Astana; he is [also] going to be in 3 cities in Kazakhstan and meet with different audiences in all those cities. It’s a way to reach out to people through person-to-person cultural diplomacy.
Even though there are lots of people visiting the ambassadors’ residences, it is still not the same as sending someone to other cities in other countries, and that’s really the purpose of American Artists Abroad.
Paula: Is the Art in Embassies Program in every American embassy?
Elizabeth: Almost every embassy. We are almost everywhere in the world where there is a U.S. ambassador. There are a few cases where, because of whatever issue – security or politics, for example – we are not present. Right now we don’t have exhibitions in Venezuela or Cuba. Technically we don’t have a U.S. ambassador in Cuba – we have a Chief of Mission – but they’re almost the same. So we are in most places. We’re going back into Iraq; we’re going back into Afghanistan; we’re going back to Libya – we just reestablished diplomatic relations in recent years.
Paula: Everywhere there is an Art in Embassies Program. . .does that also mean you get to do your special project with the American artist coming in? What percentage of the time do you get to do this?
Elizabeth: That’s a much smaller percentage unfortunately. We would try to send out a dozen artists a year – funding is limited which is why the number is so small – and I’m the only person working on it! In my office it’s me – so that number is actually smaller than I’d like.
Every year we ask for more money for this project. In the Federal system, the budget we’re working on now is the budget for 2-3 years from now. I also encourage the embassies to use other sources of State Department funding to bring artists over. So they don’t need to go through us – they can do this program and go through other grants and funding within the Department. There are other options, but American Artists Abroad is what our office funds and organizes.
Paula: Are you sought out for some sort of counseling from those other program managers?
Elizabeth: Sometimes. Advice in terms of which artists might be good individuals to send, not so much programming.
Paula: That leads me to my next question. How do you choose the artists?
Elizabeth: The way the artists are picked originally for the exhibition is through our curatorial team. We have about six curators on staff – and they divide the world up – all the posts. And everyone has posts in different parts of the world. So, we don’t have one person focusing on posts in Asia or one person focusing on posts in Africa – it’s all mixed. And that’s really more for the curators’ interest and variety.
When there is a new ambassador, that person comes to our office and meets with one of our curators. And they talk about the exhibition and if there is any kind of thematic concept that the ambassador wants to focus on or any particular kind or art or medium. They have a few conversations here in Washington before the ambassador goes overseas, and the curator researches [art] works and artists.
The curator will propose those works and artists that they think should comprise the exhibition. There is a little back and forth between the curator and ambassador, and then the final exhibition is determined.
Because a lot of the exhibitions have themes that will determine which artists participate, I always give this example: there was an Ambassador several years ago, originally from North Carolina, who went to Guatemala. Most of the artists in his exhibition were female quilters from North Carolina. So, if you were not a female quilter from the state of North Carolina you were not going to be in that show!
The way our curators find artists is by going to the big art shows in the U.S. They read all the U.S. art journals; they’re online and on the web searching for artists. And, the Art in Embassies Program has been around since 1964, so we have a huge database of past and present lenders. That’s how we find people.
How I find people to go overseas on American Artists Abroad is by talking with the curators because they develop a sense, during the course of the several months they’re putting the exhibition together, of which artists might make good participants in this program.
A good participant, from my point of view, is an artist who can talk articulately about his/her work to a variety of audiences. They have to not only be visual but be verbal about their work, which you can’t always find. A lot of the artists have some education experience, whether its formal and they teach through a university or whether they’ve taught a variety of courses, throughout their career. That’s one thing.
And the other thing is, I really need an artist who has a sense of adventure, who can cope with changing itineraries and with what happens when plans A, B and C don’t work out . . . I was with an artist, a wonderful woman named Victoria Rivers, in Ghana several years ago. She was giving a PowerPoint slide lecture in a university – we were actually in a small concrete university building, with open windows and no glass and it was about 110 degrees. There was no electricity in the room, so we had to go there and set up the slide projector and run an extension cord literally out the window to another building and plug it in. We were taping up dark fabric over the windows, trying to darken the room. It was incredibly hot.
She gave a great lecture. A couple of times during the lecture the electricity almost went out, but Victoria didn’t miss a beat. The lecture was full of students who were really interested in listening to her – so you have to be able to deal with that . . .cheerfully.
Paula: That was a successful experience even though there were some major challenges, but what would you call a success overall for the American Artists Abroad program?
Elizabeth: American Arts Abroad is easier to evaluate in a sense. I typically have the artists complete an evaluation when they come back, and I have the embassies complete an evaluation of the programming. And they’ll get direct feedback from the student participants and other audiences.
Another way to measure the success is media coverage – not in the U.S. but overseas. How is it covered in the [local] media, how is it portrayed? The U.S. artists come back and almost all of them tell me this was a life-altering, wonderful experience that transforms their work – they often go on to create a body of work that represents what happened to them in that country. I have a couple of artists who have kept personal ties with the country and have gone back to visit.
There was an artist Karen Koblitz out of California, who went to Russia, and then two years later went back to Russia and had a one-woman show at a museum there. So, she certainly had some success and kept in touch. But even if the artist is not able to return to the country, it’s really about how that experience has transformed them artistically and personally, and how it has opened their eyes about doing this kind of program as a private citizen and going overseas on behalf of the State Department. For most of them, it’s very positive and they come back and tell their friends and family and colleagues all about what they’ve done.
And the exhibitions – it’s a little harder to measure the success or impact – there are no sorts of evaluations given out. It’s much more of a qualitative experience . . . anecdotes and some media coverage. But we will get letters from ambassadors or embassy staffers telling us how important the exhibition is or how it’s making an impact or if there’s been local media coverage.
Paula: We send our artists overseas – is there any sort of reciprocal work or any kind of exchange that goes on in terms of our getting some works from the local artists in these other countries that can come here?
Elizabeth: Not through our program, which is definitely something that is frustrating. Our program is much more focused on sending U.S. art and U.S. artists overseas. There are other programs within the State Department that do true cultural exchange. You have U.S. artists going overseas and then international artists coming to the U.S. – maybe working on joint programming or joint projects or just separate kinds of projects. And artists in all fields . . . visual artists, literary artists, musicians, actors, dancers.
Paula: I was reading your bio – you have a great background – The Washington Ballet, National Gallery of Art . . . you’ve built upon one job to the next. So, what would you tell someone who wanted to prepare or study to be where you are in your career?
Elizabeth: I feel my CV makes sense [now], but when I took this job I felt it was very eclectic and didn’t make sense. I had an undergraduate degree in Art History and French. I had a graduate degree in Arts Administration, so my academic experience had been in the arts.
My work experience had been in the arts but also in Ukraine for 2 years working with NGO’s (non governmental organizations) – not in the arts at all! These were the Academy for Educational Development and the American Council of Teachers of Russian. They were running training programs in the Ukraine that were funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. This was about 10 years.
So, I had this resume that had me working overseas on government-funded projects, on the one hand, then had the arts experience and arts background on the other hand. And then I saw the ad [for a position] in the Art in Embassies Program, and it all came together.
For other people, it might feel like you are jumping around a bit and are not sure how the dots will connect, but they might all come together in the end.
As you said, every professional experience, even if I didn’t think it related has gotten me a new skill or exposure to a new responsibility. So I think that is important. Knowing a foreign language is important, living overseas is important.
Paula: Is there something you could say to students if they wanted a job like yours – what advice would you give? How would one prepare in school for that?
Elizabeth: You don’t need to be an expert in any field, but you certainly need to know enough about each field to bring them together. In terms of a course of study, definitely foreign language – if you can go abroad as a student – get yourself exposed to other cultures.
I also, my senior year, worked with some other students to put together an exhibition at our university museum so I’m really a proponent of combining the theoretical and the practical. So get a combination of theoretical courses but then get some hands-on intern or work experience. You hear all the time if you can’t get a paying job, take an internship and get a non-paying job if you can afford it. Volunteer to do something because those experiences will help you down the road.
Paula: Is there anything that you’d say about higher education experience that you found especially helpful to you or maybe that you found lacking in terms of preparing you for the real world?
Elizabeth: My undergraduate studies were right after high school and I went to Duke University but I’m thinking if you can take a year off between high school and college or even slowing down your college and working a little bit. Because between undergrad and my graduate school – I went to the School of the Art Institute in Chicago – I worked for six years, and it was a totally different experience going back to school. And I really recommend to students getting some work experience, at least between undergrad and graduate school. I think it’s really, really helpful – you’ll see things differently. If you’re paying for grad school, you’ll appreciate it a lot more too!
I want to emphasize again, learning some foreign languages, getting some international experiences in your education and also doing some extra curricular activity at college – something besides pure academics will make your experience richer.
Footnote: Elizabeth Ash recently left the Art in Embassies Program to become a Cultural Program Officer in the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. She continues to work in the realm of cultural exchange and visual arts.