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U.S. Diplomacy Gets a Little Help From Artists

September 13, 2002|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For 36 years, the U.S. Department of State's Art in Embassies Program has been placing original works of art by U.S. citizens in American diplomatic residences worldwide. This fall, for the first time, the State Department will send artists to visit the host countries along with their artworks.

During the next two months, five American artists and one art historian will participate in a new initiative that Anne Johnson, a presidential appointee who has served as director of the program since May, hopes will become a permanent part of the program.

The artists are Los Angeles ceramist Karen Koblitz, who leaves Sept. 27 for Moscow; New York City painter Valentina DuBasky, who will visit Riga, Latvia, and Tallinn, Estonia; painter Karen Gunderson, also of New York City, who travels to Lome, Togo; multimedia painter Johnny Johnson of Fredericksburg, Va., who is headed to Cotonou, Benin; and Brooklyn artist Eve Andree Laramee, who will go to Canada to visit Ottawa and Montreal. Art historian Nicholas Fox Weber, executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany, Conn., will travel to the Hague in the Netherlands to speak about the late abstract expressionist artist Josef Albers.

The artists are selected by the American ambassadors in each country in conjunction with program curators. With the State Department providing air fare and a per diem, each artist will spend several days in the host country, participating in an event at the embassy, as well as speaking or teaching at at least one community center such as a school or museum selected by the ambassadors. State Department officials said the costs of the program have not yet been finalized.

"We had travel money in our budget, and we thought it was an interesting way to expand our program--it is enhancing the use of the collections at the residences," Johnson said. "It is very cost effective; we have to be very careful about that in government right now."

As was the case before the new initiative, all participating artists agree to lend their artworks to the embassy residence for three years, at no charge. Johnson said that the program has about $50 million worth of art placed abroad at any given time--some works lent by the artist, others by museums and galleries. "People really love to lend, to participate in visual diplomacy," she said.

Artist Koblitz, who describes her colorful ceramic works as "still-life tableaux," had some of her works displayed through the program in the American Embassy in Berne, Switzerland, in the mid-1990s--but is excited to be traveling with them this time.

"I am an ambassador," said Koblitz, a faculty member in the art department at USC. "I hope to make a connection with Russian artists, to start an exchange; maybe one of them will come to America. I hope it goes way beyond my artwork."

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