From Los Angeles to New York, Phoenix to Minneapolis, cultural groups are struggling with tougher security-related U.S. visa rules for foreign performers. These have caused costly cancellations and bred uncertainty for arts programs. Though the law's intent is sound -- who can argue with making the United States safer from terrorism? -- its execution has done real harm. "The current climate," with delayed or denied artist visas, says Laura Connelly-Schneider of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, "makes me think twice [about] who I program."
Accumulating news reports underscore how visa problems are depriving U.S. audiences of an array of foreign performers. Among the cancellations: concerts featuring Pakistani singer Faiz Ali Faiz at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in April; Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden leading the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in November; the Peking Opera Company of Jilin at Symphony Space in New York in April; and India's Mamata Shankar Ballet Troupe this month at the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Center for the Arts.
In Los Angeles, these problems kept the musicians of Cuba's Sierra Maestra off downtown's Grand Performances stage last month; it's unclear whether similar woes will affect a show this month by the Beijing Modern Dance Company. Other major venues -- Staples Center, UCLA Performing Arts and the Aratani Japan America Theatre -- also report cancellations.
The issue lingers amid unkept promises of remedy. Some major arts groups led by the Assn. of Performing Arts Presenters have cooperated to set up a Web site, www.artists fromabroad.org, to help performers navigate the U.S. visa bureaucracy. Better yet, the Bush administration should adopt ideas put forth by a bipartisan group of senators including Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). The U.S. should reply to arts groups faster and with certainty about visa applications. Processing is supposed to take 15 days; it's taking roughly four months.
Adding to the problem is the question of whether artists from certain regions or nations are subject to heightened scrutiny. If U.S. officials have doubts about artists from an area, they must specify them, not leave arts groups to guess.
Officials should lengthen the application period, now restricting to a cramped six months, to a year before a planned appearance, to allow for better sales and promotion. The U.S. also needs to examine performer visa costs, which can be a burden for bands, troupes and festivals. This is especially true of a $1,000 special fee to expedite a visa.
The rules should be eased for established artists. Performers who have toured the U.S. for years without problem are currently subject to the same scrutiny and demands as newcomers.
Fans of international artists grasp a concept critical in these uncertain times: Americans need exposure to the rest of the world, especially now that the U.S. is the only superpower. By way of the arts, U.S. citizens can come to understand the hearts and minds of their global neighbors and at the same time set a more stirring example of how democracies work.