Making Art Pan/American: Bureaucrats, Artists, and Administrators as Agents of State

Paul Bonin-Rodriguez | University of Texas-Austin

Fox, Claire F. 2013. Making Art Panamerican: Cultural Policy and the Cold War. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 352 pages. $30.00 paper, $90.00 cloth.

Kaiser, Michael M. 2015. Curtains?: The Future of the Arts in America. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press. 172 pages. $26.95 hardcover.

This combined review assesses two books made comparable by their assertions about the influence of nation and state on local and world cultural markets. They are divided by temporality, artistic disciplines, and critical approaches. By putting these works into conversation, I invite readers of emisférica to consider how the disparately traced [Pan]American cultural policy histories continue to shape artistic trends and inform the potential for hemispheric cultural engagement. This analysis also raises questions about the role artists are imagined to play in arts policy and leadership.

Claire W. Fox’s Making Art Panamerican: Cultural Policy and the Cold War (2013) is a stunning work of archival scholarship. Drawn heavily from agency memos, journal accounts, and period publications, the book is significant for its focus on key public policy vectors between the United States and Latin America—a curtain-up, curtain-down moment when a US federal agency promoted Panamerican ideals and cultural exchanges. Although focused primarily on a visual arts program, the book shares with the Hemispheric Institute a concern for the ways that artistic production plays at the margins of nation and asserts a role beyond representation. More pointedly, Fox’s study finds bureaucrats and artists forging international cultural policies through acts of compliance, collaboration, and subterfuge.

Fox’s main focus is the Visual Arts Section of the Pan American Union (PAU), a federal agency ideated from a series of conferences at the end of the 19th century, when the American states sought a standardized hemispheric currency and mutually lucrative trade policies. The former, of course, never happened; the latter took the form of neoliberal economic policies emblematized by NAFTA (signed in 1994), which serves as the framing device for Fox’s first book. Both of these outcomes invite Fox’s inquiry into how the ideals of "Pan Americanism” and “panamericanism”—respectively marked as a set of hemispheric exchanges enacted by policy and “vernacular” modes of engagement—were immediately subjected to conflicting national agendas (314n).

With funding from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the PAU constructed its landmark space on the Washington Mall in 1910. In 1946, the PAU was subsumed as a division of the Organization of American States (OAS); the agency, which is still housed in that building, now limits its mission to social and economic development concerns. Unlike the OAS of today, the original PAU drew from Western liberal notions of art as a universal language, rather than culture as a testament to difference, to envision cultural expressions as a Pan American/panamerican social glue.

Occupying center stage in Fox’s book is José Gómez Sicre, a charismatic Cuban national who brought the visual arts program to prominence over two decades (1948–1968). Trained in law, Gómez Sicre became known as the “creator of Latin American Art” through his staging of art exhibitions at the PAU that then toured south. As a homosexual who was presumed to be leftist because of his d/alliances, the bold Gómez Sicre gained influence during the Lavender Scare and the Red Scare by aligning himself with celebrity artists and influential elites, including Alfred H. Barr, founding director of MoMA, and philanthropist Nelson Rockefeller. His gift was for staging shows that generated attention across borders, promoted Panamerican ideals, and translated capitalism to local contexts in places such as Bolivia and Venezuela. His efforts reflected the economic and social development mentality of his elite funders. The shows he created drew heavily from works already collected by MoMA, with supplemental works from Latin American artists blended into the mix.

Dedicated to distinct periods of programmatic development, Fox’s chapters detail the PAU’s negotiations across nations and among leaders from both the public and private sectors. Overshadowed by Gómez Sicre is Concha Romero James, the subject of chapter one. A product of Mexico’s intelligentsia and a feminist, Romero James established the PAU’s cultural program, forged its foundational relationships with MoMA, and systematized its archive during the Good Neighbor Years (1930-1945).

The second and third chapters focus on 1948–1959, the Cold War period when Gómez Sicre’s leadership was most influential. As a curator and bureaucrat, Gómez Sicre is a compelling figure, capable of politically situating his own complex politics within a required frame. Responsive to the US Cold War agenda, his curatorial choices promoted an anti-communist cultural internationalism. Publically, Gómez Sicre claimed to value aesthetics over direct political contests. Paradoxically, though, he championed minoritarian art movements. A fan of neither abstract expressionism nor social realism, prized in the US and Latin America respectively, he promoted alternative artistic genealogies, innovations, and contributions that shifted the attention from Europe and the US to Latin America. To him, the pre-Columbian artists, whose influence could be found in contemporary vernacular art and craft, modeled the first truly abstract work.

For a time, Gómez Sicre’s influence grew through his work with Mexican artist José Luis Cuevas, his protégé. Cuevas’s burgeoning fame moved him from critic of the Mexican state to accomplice; from the curator’s standard-bearer to independent artist; and from the US, where he established his fame, to Mexico, where he cemented it. Aesthetically, Cuevas is a representative for the young artists Gómez Sicre sought cultivate, but also an avatar for the curator’s negotiations with capitalism, one who could put it to play, ultimately freeing himself from the agency’s grasp.

Chapter five shifts the focus to the waning influence of the Visual Arts Section, 1960–1968. Under the banner of Alliance for Progress, the US turned away from cultural diplomacy and toward developmental programs focused on economic progress. The banner moment of this period was Hemisfair 1968, the nearly seven-month international exposition held in San Antonio, which promoted Latin America, especially Mexico, as economic neighbor. Forged from competing interests between business and art (with business winning), Hemisfair was a financial disaster for the city, and the nadir of Gómez Sicre’s PAU tenure. The event finds neither Hemisfair nor Gómez Sicre in tune with counterculture movements, but Gómez Sicre fares less well, unable to translate his brash aesthetic and bold moves, even his capitalist aims, to an event that seeks to be “family friendly.”

Each of the chapters demonstrates Fox’s capacity to balance scholarly inquiry with storytelling. As indicated by the title of her preface, “The Long Twentieth Century Quest for Panamerica,” and its focus on a trans-American performance work staged by Pablo Helguera in 2006, Panamerica remains an ideal, perhaps a brand that has been subsumed by capital. As the project moved southward after triumphant beginnings in Alaska and Canada, the artist encountered increasing resistance in the forms of ennui and publically asserted nationalisms—responses far removed from the PAU’s original aims and reception. Ars longa/vita brevis (art lasts, but life is short) is the cultural economics term attributed to Hippocrates and used to describe the duration of cultural production (Caves 2000). As Fox demonstrates so well, art’s lasting value is subject to state interests determined by the actors and policymakers working to create spaces for its relevance.

Despite its title, Michael Kaiser’s Curtains?: The Future of the Arts in America (2015) focuses primarily on the prospects for US nonprofit arts institution in today’s neoliberal marketplace. In keeping with the author’s training and experience, the book’s primary objective is the application of business principles to the persistent challenges of arts management. Continuing the work he began in The Art of the Turnaround (2008), Kaiser asserts that the nonprofit arts sector resists certain efficiencies and concludes they require bold, creative interventions to thrive. Maintaining a backward glance on the growth of nonprofit arts during the last century, Kaiser reads three other market sectors (commercial, community, and government) as either competitors or potential destinations for the fourth.[1]

Among US Latinos/as in arts policy and practice, Kaiser’s name has been familiar in recent years. Fallout from a discussion about the lack of Latino/a Kennedy Center honorees under Kaiser’s tenure as chief wrought a firestorm of criticism. Kaiser joined in the protest, pointing out that the public airing of a tense, private conversation elided his history of supporting diverse cultural organizations. In addition to expanding programs at the Kennedy Center and bringing the Very Special Arts (VSA) into its mix, Kaiser has led American Ballet Theater and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company. Since that crisis, Kaiser’s guiding hand in the DeVos Center for Arts Management and Training has made additional contributions to a broad spectrum of cultural organizations. The Kennedy Center Honors have welcomed more Latino/a awardees, as well. As a result, perhaps, Kaiser gestures broadly to a culturally diverse arts future and past, though his primary focus is the greater nonprofit infrastructure and its Western, liberal support system.

While the book bears no footnotes, it draws on experiential knowledge and business scholarship. Most evident in Kaiser’s plain-spokenness is his conviction that large, elite arts institutions maintain a dominant, even determinant position for the arts infrastructure. To grow and succeed, smaller and mid-size organizations must aspire to be more like them by growing and building funders and seasons. Lost in this assertion are the number of smaller ways that communities might configure around and support cultural expression and engagement. Might not a more modestly scaled production or public festival offer many artists working in the community contexts the opportunity to share and promote work?

Arranged in five chapters, Curtains? delivers its historiography in the first two, before turning to the potential pitfalls for the future of the arts in US and the author’s solution. Looking back to the last fifty years of the twentieth century, Kaiser describes the exponential growth of the nonprofit arts sector. His argument implicitly evokes economists William Baumol and William Bowen (1966), who first diagnosed “cost disease”: success increases productivity and accomplishments and contributes to growth. Costs increase, but income does not keep up, especially in markets flooded with more choices. Absent a guaranteed revenue stream, and challenged to continue producing new, better works, the demands on nonprofits grow in magnitude and complexity. Some responses include making organizational choices (balance budgets, reduce programmatic aspirations); others involve increasing sales and seeking philanthropic inputs.

Foregrounding the problem allows Kaiser to demonstrate and explain how philanthropy’s role grew in importance from 1950–2000, a time when earned income remained a primary revenue stream for nonprofits, even in the face of inflating costs. This examination also invites Kaiser’s diagnosis of the contemporary nonprofit arts marketplace: declining subscriptions, ongoing inflation, and a large, unwieldy arts national infrastructure. Organizations compete against each other and technology for audiences, whose buying power only increases. Additional obstacles come from a decline in government arts spending, the sensitivity of foundations to a volatile stock market, as well as the disappearance of artists as public intellectuals from popular broadcast entertainment. Whereas a Mike Douglas or Merv Griffin might have welcomed Joan Sutherland, Jimmy Fallon welcomes Taylor Swift.

Kaiser’s third and fourth chapters function as call and response. Highlighting challenges particular to and shared across dance, theater, opera, orchestras, museums, and arts education, he notes that systemic inequalities are growing. Echoing but not citing findings from The Performing Arts in a New Era (2001), he notes that large institutions are gaining greater market dominance; mid-size organizations are either taking risks in an attempt to grow, or downsizing and turning more to the community sector for support. Dedicated arts programs in schools are succumbing to a STEM-dominated age.

In response, Kaiser highlights successful thriving organizations that are embracing technological media: some pursue live simulcasts, others navigate social media, inserting themselves into daily lives and conversations. Offering up Michael Porter’s business principles, Kaiser outlines an analysis of the evolution of industries that can be applied to arts nonprofits. Clearly, this theorizing has informed Kaiser’s contributions to the DeVos Center and partly explains his leadership record; consequently, his analysis here is at its most cogent and productive. Kaiser’s evolutionary model sets up his argument for the final chapter, in which he asserts that arts organizations must follow the lead of their subject matter and be bold, daring, and avant-garde, even in the face of great odds.

Despite their seeming differences, these studies meet at critical junctures—intersections that expand their possibilities for readers of both books. Several times, Kaiser forecasts that the US’s market-based impulses will influence states with historically strong subsidized cultural programs, thereby leading to an even more challenging role for artists in a competitive world market. His assertion highlights questions raised by Fox’s original case-study focus on Helguera, whose aims revealed that the goals of Panamericanism have long been replaced by Latin Americanisms.

Both books focus on the powerful male figure at their centers. Kaiser today is a stand-in for Gómez Sicre in his moment—the avowed arts managerial professional at the top of his game, asserting his accomplishments and forecasting a future. As Fox critically engages how race/class support cultural access, Kaiser makes expansive claims about diversity without delving too deeply. In his first chapter, Kaiser asserts that after the assassination of Martin Luther King, a number of African-American arts organizations and companies emerged. Yet his political spark fails to note other possible influences, such as the Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA). He also fails to address data on the relatively small philanthropic funding given to non-white arts institutions, a topic that is the subject of Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change (2011). Nor does Kaiser attend to the efforts that might be required to sustain diversity among organizations that have been historically marginalized. In other words, Kaiser’s ideals reflect those of Gómez Sicre, and yet, unlike Gómez Sicre, he allies himself with public and private institutions. Admittedly, though, Kaiser is working in a much more diagnostic and prescriptive terrain, and so his work is likely to come up against ongoing scrutiny and review.

Most importantly, both books depict art worlds dominated by systemic hierarchies that lead from state to patron to arts administrator and, finally, to artist. In Fox’s book, Gómez is angered when his protégé Cuevas diverges from the terms of their close alliance. Writing about the US culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, Kaiser observes the following: “In the last two decades of the twentieth century, artists increasingly behaved like naughty children[…]and arts administrators like angry parents. This put limits on dreaming” (20). Through these portrayals, though differently valenced, both authors point to the need for artists to see and identify their works with regard to state interests and to claim more space in national arts programs.

Paul Bonin-Rodriguez is a writer-performer and dancer from San Antonio who has toured extensively throughout the United States. His book, Performing Policy: How Politics and Cultural Programs Redefined U.S. Artists for the Twenty-first Century (Palgrave, 2014), assesses how research and development initiatives since the late 1990s have radically reshaped artistic practices nationwide. His articles appear in Artivate: a Journal of Entrepreneurship in the Arts, Theatre Topics, and a forthcoming anthology on New WORLD Theater. His plays have been published in The Color of Theatre: Race, Culture, and Contemporary Performance (Continuum, 2002), Jump-Start Playworks (Wings Press, 2004), and Text and Performance Quarterly.

Notes [1] See Ann Markusen, et al. 2006. Crossover: How Artists Build Careers Across Commercial, Nonprofit and Community Work, Minneapolis: Arts Economy Initiative, Project on Regional and Industrial Economics, Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs (University of Minnesota), 16. <

Works Cited

Baumol, William and William Bowen. 1966. Performing Arts, the Economic Dilemma: A Study of Problems Common to Theater, Opera, Music, and Dance. New York: Twentieth Century Fund.

Caves, Richard. 2000. Creative Industries: Contracts between Art and Commerce. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McCarthy, Kevin F., et al. 2001. The Performing Arts in a New Era. Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

Kaiser, Michael M. 2008. The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations. Hanover: University Press of New England.

Sidford, Holly. 2011. Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy. Washington, DC: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.