President John F. Kennedy understood that sharing art and culture brought people together, broke down barriers and established a connection that transcended policies and politics. It could go a long way toward improving relations with people in foreign countries.
In 1963, the Kennedy administration founded the “Arts in the Embassies” program, a public/private partnership between the U.S. State Department and more than 20,000 partners from museums, galleries, collectors and others that enabled more than 4,000 artists to share and show their art in U.S. embassies around the world. Every president and secretary of state has embraced this program since. It has become an important part of American foreign policy.
Having served as the U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Hungary from 2001-2003 and as chief of protocol for the U.S. from 2007-2009, I can attest to the program’s success. I have learned the power of using the arts as a tool of diplomacy.
When I arrived in Hungary shortly after the September 11 attacks, our embassy was advised that enhanced security and safety concerns would delay approvals to get American art. So instead of waiting to decorate the ambassador’s residence with American art, I invited artists from Budapest to loan their art to adorn the walls. That gesture created a bond between the art community and the U.S., and it went a long way toward gaining the appreciation of the Hungarian government.
I quickly became an admirer of Hungarian art, and with the help of local experts and advisers, I began purchasing artists’ works for my personal enjoyment and collection.
My interest in the art and culture of Hungary heightened my understanding of the Hungarian people and their government, and it helped me carry out my official responsibilities. I knew where they were coming from, and I had great success working with the Hungarian government to accomplish America’s goals. We established better security cooperation; we resolved commerce transparency issues; and we established the first conference on human trafficking and the exploitation of workers, which was attended by neighboring Balkan States.
Today, my Hungarian art collection spans more than a century, from just before the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the present. One of the largest art collections outside of Hungary, it includes the works of the acknowledged masters of Hungarian modernism, as well as artists of more modest reputations who never would have gotten the recognition they deserve if I had not been able to share their works with museums in the U.S. that have shown my collection.
Although I am no longer the ambassador to Hungary, my work to educate the American people about Hungarian art and culture continues. I am pleased that my art collection will be exhibited from Oct. 18 to Jan. 8 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art in Florida.
If you want to know a people, you need to take the time to learn about who they are and where they came from, their hopes and aspirations, their art and culture.
The world would be a more peaceful place if we took the time to understand one another, and art and culture are good places to start. That is the “art” of diplomacy.