By executive order, President John F. Kennedy formalized the diplomatic arts program Art in Embassies at the US Department of State in 1963 (with the encouragement of the Museum of Modern Art). Over the past 50 years, 20,000 artists, museums, galleries and collectors have participated in the program by installing American art in embassies located in 189 countries. The exhibitions are designed to connect people, “to play an active diplomatic role by creating meaningful cultural exchange through the visual arts,” according to Secretary of State John Forbes Kerry. It sounds like a friendly, harmless idea. But in the world of diplomacy, is anything really safe from criticism or cynicism or controversy? Not when the Holy See is involved.
Despite a recent tweet by former Florida governor Jeb Bush on November 27, 2013 insinuating that President Obama plans to close the US Embassy in Vatican City (in the administration’s “latest anti-religion pursuit”), the next Art in Embassies exhibition is scheduled to be installed at the US Embassy in Vatican City. Some see the choice as a strategic play – to appease conservative Catholics who vocally oppose the Affordable Care Act which covers “drugs that kill nascent human lives,” among other things. Whether the exhibition’s location is intended as an olive branch or not, one thing is for sure: the curators can be forgiven for feeling a little intimidated. After all, Michelangelo is famously on the premises. While some of the art chosen is individually compelling, like Paula Scher’s, it’s hard to see how the total effect meets the State Department mandate that the work should “be relevant for the intended audience.” Take a look for yourself, here.