Issue 9 Childhood Winter 2002/03

Hello, Nice to Meet You, Do You Want to Go to Holland?: A Conversation with Robert Kloos and Mónica de La Torre

Regine Basha, Robert Kloos and Mónica de la Torre

Having just completed two years in the position of Cultural Affairs Officer for Visual Art and Music at the Canadian Consulate in New York, I’ve been thinking about the ambiguous role of the “cultural attaché” and how foreign governments use culture to further national and political agendas. The following conversation grew out of several encounters I had with two of my former counterparts—Robert Kloos, the Director for Visual Arts, Architecture and Design at the Consulate General of the Netherlands in New York, and Mónica de la Torre, the former Director of Literature and Visual Arts at the Mexican Cultural Institute of New York. Since we all have strong convictions regarding the limitations of our roles as cultural attachés, we compared the demands of our respective posts here in New York.

There seems to be no global standard regarding the appointment of a cultural attaché or the official presence of a cultural department abroad. Each country has its own agenda and approach that depends on the popularity and economic demand of each of its unique “cultural products” (i.e., Italy pushes fashion and food, Holland pushes design and architecture, Sweden pushes furniture, etc.).

Here in the United States, the presence of a foreign government’s cultural department is usually contingent upon that country’s economic strength and its own domestic cultural priorities. For instance, because many European countries (such as Holland, Sweden, Germany, France) have historical systems of government support for the arts at home, their foreign policy includes a stronger cultural diplomacy effort abroad. Of course, some countries might choose to direct their cultural promotion toward countries other than the United States. For instance, Canada puts more effort into self-promotion in France and England than it does in the US (budgets are higher, there is a gallery space, etc.). Japan has as much presence in Australia as it does in the US. In the cases of countries with less economic reach, culture may not have been given a special envelope of funds (or special status); it tends to be part of the trade department along with other exportable products and is handled by a generalist rather than a specialist—such is the case with New Zealand’s Trade Office in New York, for instance.

As the hegemony of US culture spreads throughout the world, the desire of other countries to protect and disseminate their own cultural agendas on American turf becomes all the more urgent. These sanctioned assertions of national cultural identity tend to compete on the island of Manhattan. The question, then, is how effective are they and how does the cultural attaché negotiate this role?

Through our discussion we found that the role and effectiveness of the cultural attaché is shaped almost entirely by the personality of the individual occupying the position. In some cases, they are hired locally (as dual nationals or citizens) rather than from their own countries in order to develop dual allegiances. This proves to be a more cost-effective plan for the department, since the local officer does not need to relocate. It also relieves the ever-present danger of diplomats “going native”—a derogatory term for when a diplomat relinquishes his or her post and becomes a resident in said country (official diplomats are supposed to rotate every 3 years or so to other countries, the location of which is unknown to them). The idea is that local employees, most of whom are professionals in their fields, can better guide the department locally and provide valuable built-in contacts.

RB: When were your departments installed in New York and what were the agendas?

MT: The Mexican Cultural Institute of New York was established in 1991 along with thirteen other institutes in various cities in the United States as part of a program to build official links with Mexican immigrants abroad. As stated in the Institute’s annual report, its main purpose was to “nurture a sense of national identity among people of Mexican origin living in the US by organizing events that celebrated Mexico’s history and traditions”—an idea that came directly out of the administration of former president Carlos Salinas. It was said that there might have been an electoral motive to the foundation of these Institutes whose primary function was to reinforce patriotism. Over the years the Institute evolved into a cultural center that catered to a very different audience than the one originally conceived.

RK: Traditionally, the Dutch Embassy in Washington and the Consulates in several cities had so-called Press and Cultural Affairs Departments staffed by career diplomats with little or no background in the arts. In 1990, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs struck an agreement with the Ministry of Culture to create a new office that would work nationally through New York and be staffed by people with specific cultural backgrounds in all the arts disciplines. Over the years the agenda has changed from importing pre-packaged projects to the United States (such as exhibitions, concert series and the like) to a way of working where we try to stimulate American institutions to make their own informed selections of Dutch artists and/or exhibitions produced in Holland. You could say that we changed our job description from salesmen to information brokers and matchmakers.

RB: As for Canada, officers for culture in its foreign missions began taking posts as early as 1966, but these early positions were taken by career diplomats. It was really the culture-savvy Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who understood the importance and value of cultural affairs abroad and left a legacy that lasted from the late 70s well through the 1980s. His efforts even supported a consulate-run gallery, The 49th Parallel, from 1980 to 1992 in New York. Yet by the early 1990s, the Department of Foreign Affairs suffered serious cutbacks and had to close the gallery space. So now that we all seem to have an official “cultural policy” or “cultural diplomacy,” what does that mean for your job?

RK: The involvement of governments and governmental bodies such as consulates and embassies in international cultural exchange has traditionally been a complicated issue. Often it is not clear what the main goal is: furthering the exchange of the arts, which is quality based, or using the arts to propagate national identity in a day and age of globalization, where countries feel the need to protect their cultural heritage. Our office supports professional artists from all over the world who have been living and working in the Netherlands for at least three years. For example, in the recent past we were mostly involved in projects with artists that are not Dutch nationals, such as Carlos Amorales (Mexico), Meschac Gaba (Benin), Moshekwa Langa (South Africa), Ebru Ozsecen (Turkey), Fiona Tan (Indonesia), etc. Artists will undoubtedly bring baggage from their cultural backgrounds, but it is the current locality that has become much more important for the understanding of their work. I would like to shed the windmill, tulip, and wooden shoes mentality, and focus on the art itself.

RB: Yes, there are issues about how to guage the degree of the artist’s nationality: Should it be by years spent in any given country? By citizenship? By visibility and virtual presence in that country? What seems to happen at a certain level is that the notoriety of an artist translates into an opportunity for the country to brand itself. The artists or personalities then turn into cultural products, almost like logos, regardless of where they are based. For instance, in Canada’s case, someone like the news reporter Peter Jennings has been out of Canada for years, but the Consulate still points to him and announces that he’s a Canadian and includes him in high-profile official events—whether he considers himself one or not. Or take, for example, Jeff Wall, whose work has come to epitomize Canadian art in a way: dry, conceptual, classical. These traits tend to parlay into positive stereotypes when placed in the context of cultural policy. I wonder how much of that has influenced the funding flow for him and for other Canadian artists who follow suit. You could say that there is a strange consensual agreement going on and it can become very convenient for artists to participate. So when is it appropriate for the Consulate to accentuate nationalist traits?

MT: What you’re saying reminds me of a strange thing that used to happen to me when I’d find out about certain events in New York that took place without us, the Institute, knowing. My personality would split; I clearly developed an institutional persona, from which I’m glad to have freed myself. When there was some prominent event with Mexican artists (an exhibition or reading, for instance) happening without my involvement, I’d actually feel like the people organizing it were chipping away at the Institute’s territory. I’d even say that the Institute itself got competitive about it. Of course the opposite happened as well. Many times we tried to avoid having our logo associated with certain events. Once there was a tribute to Octavio Paz celebrated at the National Arts Club; on the stage hung a poster of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Before the poetry reading some dancers performed an Aztec dance. Paz must have been rolling over in his grave! On the other hand, there might have been certain instances in which artists preferred not to involve any Mexican officials. I’d understand if they’d feel embarrassed to have the Mexican Consul offer a speech at their opening.

We shouldn’t forget that in the case of Mexico, where there has been a lot of political turmoil in the last decade, culture is not easily disassociated from politics. At some point around 1999 there was a group of pro-Zapatista activists based in the South Bronx, I believe, that frequently organized protests outside of the Consulate. When things heated up, the Consul General at the time responded in typical Mexican fashion. There’s a reason why the PRI managed to stay in power for over 70 years! He decided to organize a symposium, in conjunction with the Mexican Cultural Institute, about the pros and cons of the Zapatista uprising. The leading voices representing both sides were brought from Mexico. The panels took place at The New School, a neutral space. The auditorium was packed. The Consulate presented a view of Mexican institutions that was very open and democratic; by doing this it neutralized opposition. If I’m not mistaken, protests did diminish, in part because the Consul’s move paralleled the way the Mexican government in general began dealing with the Zapatistas. As we know, in the end this didn’t work for the PRI. When Fox won the presidency in 2000 a sense of hope about the possibility of true dialogue was kindled.

RB: Yes, that’s cultural diplomacy. Certainly there were times when a particular “cultural” project made the Canadian Consulate nervous, especially when it seemed overtly political. Last year, when the Americas Summit opened to huge crowds of protestors in Quebec City, an officer at the Consulate wanted to invite the controversial author Naomi Klein, an anti-globalist, to give a talk in New York. Of course without ever saying it directly, the Department of Foreign Affairs expressed discomfort in regard to her politics and put up barriers to the realization of the program. In the end she came anyway, but was forced to counterpoint with another Canadian right-wing journalist in order to deflect any possible accusation of biased politics on the part of the Consulate.

MT: I have a question before you go on. What is “Canada in a Suitcase”?

RB: Actually, the idea for this conversation came up because of “Canada in a Suitcase.” When I started at the Consulate, there was a certain kind of acclimatization that took place. After that I came to realize that the Consulate is basically a PR firm in disguise.

RK: And you went into shock!

RB: Yes, it was a culture shock! In Canada, I don’t recall having this need to promote Canadian-ness in any way. In my job at the Saidye Bronfman Centre for the Arts in Montreal, if visitors came in from abroad, there were no added implementations to justify what’s Canadian or not. Also, because government funding for the arts is a given in Canada (as with Mexico and Holland), there wasn’t much need to promote the government in general. Here it was very evident that there were strategies in place to define what Canadian-ness is in a unified, generalized way and to import it, package it, and promote it to the US—which felt to me like a very American thing to do.

RK: So what are those characteristics?

RB: To the office here, it’s a certain political neutrality, the idea of being a friendly, helpful neighbor to the US (but not as market- or consumer-driven as the US), a vast, resourceful country with a more open immigration policy than the US, possessing a dry humor—somewhere between British and American. Internally, though, there are of course thorny, unresolved issues—especially with Quebec’s Francophone identity vis-à-vis English Canada and the autonomous rights of First Nations, or indigenous people. The relationship Canada has with the US is very strange: on the one hand, there is a strong desire to distinguish itself from the US; on the other hand, there is constant emulation, especially on the part of corporate Canada and Canadian pop culture. The reality is that many artists leave for the US and are not interested in being called Canadian—this is called the “brain-drain”—and you wonder if for some, it’s just a citizenship and not a nationality.

So, a few years before I had started, there was a new envelope of funding that was designated as “Public Diplomacy.” It was basically a glorified PR budget, not the usual support grants that we would give to venues and individual artists. It was supposed to be used for the highest-profile New York events and promotional material—big names only. It was used at one point to enlist a PR firm to shape an image for the Consulate. The PR firm developed the image of the “Can-Apple”: a green apple, symbolizing New York, with a red Canadian maple leaf on it.

MT: Yes! I know that apple very well. We used to receive the Canadian Consulate’s newsletter and, better yet, it was our model for how things should be. The press office at the Mexican Consulate produced a monthly newsletter with listings of cultural events that unfortunately would not get to people until the middle of the month. So tell us more about the apple.

RB: An artist was commissioned to build a three-dimensional version of the apple out of the Public Diplomacy budget. It’s transported to events like a mascot of the Canadian Consulate. It once went to an event and got damaged (the leaf chipped) so the Consul General decided to make another one—a proxy apple—that would travel while the original would stay at the Consulate. The apple, by the way, has already appeared on scarves, coasters, mouse-pads, and ties, which are given away as gifts. The Consulate’s newsletter is called The Uppernorthside, the idea being a friendly neighborhood within New York next to the Upper East Side or Upper West Side. Included in the listings are famous Canadian celebrities that appear in New York regularly—and don’t really need our publicity or funding. As for “Canada in a Suitcase,” basically it is a cardboard box fashioned into a suitcase that contains a video, mini-flag pins, tourist pamphlets, and general information about Canada’s resources, economy, diverse cultures, and arts. One is expected to take this around on “outcalls” (meetings).

MT: What seems really weird to me is that this apple is presenting the institution and not Canada.

RB: That’s exactly right! The criticism was that it serves to promote the Consulate itself as if it were a venue, and it’s not! I mean, if there was a space… maybe.

RK: In the beginning I thought I wanted to have an exhibition space to present Dutch art, but pretty soon I changed my mind. It would not provide the necessary context and environment for the work. It segregates it from the regular New York art scene and underlines the Dutch-ness of the work. I’d much rather see Rineke Dijkstra presented at Marian Goodman than at a venue that only presents Dutch art.

These promotional tools you are mentioning are misguided. First of all, they are not about cultural promotion but about national promotion. The newsletter heaps all kinds of unrelated information together and disperses it among an indiscriminate audience instead of a target audience. Also, it gobbles up a lot of money that could otherwise be used for the support of the arts.

A few years ago I devised a system that we call the “fact-file” project. It contains a database and archival system that maps the cultural field in the United States and records information about organizations, their mission, programming, and interest in international exchange. Furthermore, it documents the work history our office has had with these organizations, what projects we collaborated on, etc. Initially I conceived of this system to prevent the huge information loss that occurred every three to four years when diplomats are replaced with a newcomer that has to reinvent the wheel. We do not use general communication tools such as brochures, websites, publicity kits, and the like, but instead favor one-on-one contact and direct dialogue.

MT: Going back to the issue about whether it’s good or not to have an exhibition space, I’d like to say that in principle I do agree with you, Robert, that it’s better not to have one. But I’ll tell you what the rationale is. Perhaps you didn’t have this problem, but if you’re at the Mexican Cultural Institute in NYC, do you know how many Mexican artists show up at your office every week? Some of those artists we couldn’t immediately dismiss. Sometimes we had to, or we wanted to, help them show their work in New York but didn’t feel that there were many chances that a mainstream gallery or museum would be interested in it. The art market plays by its own rules and many artists either can’t or simply don’t want to adjust to them. We thought that by giving these artists a show in our own space we could do something good for them and for others by expanding the range of things that get shown in New York. This might have been idealistic, but we never thought that our job was comparable in any way to that of a Chelsea dealer.

Also, in 1999 we moved to a new building that had a pretty good gallery space. We decided to start a new exchange program that consisted of inviting independent curators to come up with exhibitions for the gallery. In some instances we also gave them grants to go on scouting trips to Mexico and meet with different artists. If they needed lists of artists to meet with, we would provide them, but we never told them whom to see. They could include whomever they wanted, if they at least included a couple of Mexican artists. This was inspired by a series of very successful exhibitions we had done in Mexico City and New York curated by Kenny Schachter. These programs worked well because they truly promoted lasting ties between artists of both Mexico and the United States.

RK: But even these trips need to be thought out more. It is not enough to support a curator’s visit to a country once and think that he or she, from that moment on, has a perfect understanding of what is going on there. It’s tempting to fall into the “Hello, nice to meet you, do you want to go to Holland?” trap. I want the curators to come more often and to stay longer and enter into a serious dialogue with Holland. On the one hand, I cannot deny that I have to carry out my country’s national cultural policies, but on the other hand, I would rather have my role be superfluous. I am constantly trying to find a balance.

MT: One can think of our roles in terms of infiltration, in the sense that you first trace this map and know more about them than they think. Then you make yourself a prominent figure in the art world, but you never overtly push any artists or anything. You become someone who people can trust. Of course this is much more effective than walking around with catalogues or slides in your portfolio.

RB: But the position itself demands that you be a double-agent; to the artists of the country you must, by default, promote and service their needs, while to the local institutions you are the provider of funds. It is unnerving to be in that double role.

Robert Kloos is director for Visual Arts, Architecture & Design at the Consulate General of the Netherlands in New York.

Mónica de la Torre is co-author of Appendices, Illustrations & Notes (Smart Art Press) and editor of the anthology Reversible Monuments: Contemporary Mexican Poetry, recently published by Copper Canyon Press.

Regine Basha works independently as a curator, writer and co-producer of public projects. She is the former Cultural Affairs Officer for the Canadian Consulate in New York.

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