Cultural Diplomacy helps countries and their people to better understand each other at the most basic human level. Cultural elements – such as language, cuisine, art, and music – inform people’s identities around the world. Comprehending these leads to genuine interactions and fosters long-term friendships. By learning more about other cultures, we can gain new insights and build mutual respect with international and subnational partners. Culture is the neutral platform that creates an environment of trust and respect from which we can address difficult issues and seek common ground.
As Senior Vice President for the Arts at Meridian, I oversee a 35-year-old program known as Art for Cultural Diplomacy. Since the mid-1990s, I have seen this soft-power model create positive and lasting outcomes – both large and small. Our group understands the importance of working closely with partners worldwide, identifying their core values, and using these to tell their stories to Americans through exhibitions and other cultural programs. By the same token, we are committed to sharing matters of social relevance in our country with people worldwide. Meridian’s global reach has led to successful collaborations and engendered meaningful dialogues at all levels.
I can think of countless examples of how this works in practice, but two of them come to mind for this post. In 2011, The U.S. Embassy in Kabul commissioned Meridian to develop a photographic exhibition that chronicles early interactions between Americans and Afghans. As part of a unique partnership, our team worked closely with the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, the Afghan Embassy in Washington, D.C., and countless Americans and Afghans who had collaborated decades earlier. The resulting exhibition, In Small Things Remembered, not only highlights official relations and government initiatives, but also tells the story of people – from bus mechanics to farmers – who shared food, music, and art, while working on shared projects. Our inclusive curatorial approach led to a presentation that delighted – and often surprised – audiences in Washington, D.C., and throughout Afghanistan.
I am also reminded of the time in 2006 when we brought artists from Kashgar in western China to the United States as part of a Meridian exhibition, celebrating contemporary art from cities along the Silk Road. This was the first time these artists had left their hometown, and they had no idea what to expect in America. While they enjoyed their stops in Washington, D.C., and New York City, the artists most fondly remembered their visit to Kinston, North Carolina. Locals had arranged for them to stay in a beach house where they could paint the ocean – something they had never seen before. Kinston not only had a profound influence on their art, but also a lasting impact on their perception of the United States, its hospitality, and its people. Moments such as these are a testament of how culture touches individuals at every level of society – even dispelling negative preconceptions – and inspires us at Meridian to create programs that strengthen international understanding.