The Quiet Americans: The Art of Diplomacy

Courtesy of Kehinde Wiley/ Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California.

A diplomatic program sends American art to embassies around the globe and forms partnerships with foreign artists in the U.S.

America has been fighting to win the hearts and minds of the world since Ben Franklin, our business-savvy first envoy, attempted to sell Europe on the American Revolution. Since then, we’ve famously tried nylons in post–WW II Paris, ping-pong in Cold War–era China, and Hollywood pretty much everywhere. Less well-known? Under a State Department office called Art in Embassies, we’ve also tried Georgia O’Keeffe, Jeff Koons, and Kehinde Wiley. The soft power exchange, which places works of art in American embassies abroad and establishes partnerships with foreign artists at home, has played a vital if unsung role in U.S. public diplomacy since it was established five decades ago (under culturista Jackie Kennedy’s husband). But its mission of cross-cultural dialogue is especially relevant today, as more than a decade of war in the Middle East, the spread of extremism from Syria to Nigeria, and our own policies on everything from surveillance to immigration have frayed relations with friends and foes alike. When talks fail, “art reaches across borders, past statehouses, and beyond meeting rooms,” says chief curator Virginia Shore, to speak in a wordless language of shared humanity.