Cultural Diplomacy on Main St. in America

The US State Department, which has long sent American artists abroad as part of its cultural diplomacy efforts, is for the first time launching a sizable program to bring foreign performers here - an initiative administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts.

Comedians, puppeteers, musicians, and dancers from Pakistan, Haiti, and Indonesia will tour to small and midsize cities across America next year as part of the nearly $2 million Center Stage program.

“Since the early ’50s, we’ve basically sent groups overseas to do people-to-people exchange for mutual understanding,’’ said Ann Stock, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs. “This is the first time we’re bringing 10 groups to Main Street America, if you will.’’

Where the Center Stage artists will travel in the United States has not yet been decided, but Rebecca Blunk, executive director of the New England Foundation for the Arts, said that she expects some of them will stop in New England.

“This is a real change, and we think a really great one,’’ said Blunk. “By bringing artists from other countries, we’re showing respect. We’re opening up to learning from them.’’

Stock, who has called the pilot program “an unprecedented endeavor’’ marking “a significant shift’’ in the department’s focus, said that it does not reflect a policy change. Rather, she said, it marks a broadening of an agenda that for decades has included bringing foreign students to this country.

In recent years, the department has initiated a smattering of small programs that brought foreign performing artists here, usually a single company playing a large city on the East Coast. The number of artists involved in Center Stage, and the breadth of the country it will cover, set it apart, Stock said.

The expansion, she noted, is in line with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s advocacy of “smart-power diplomacy, which is about using every tool at our disposal.’’

Pakistan, Haiti, and Indonesia were selected for the program from a longer list that included Syria, Mali, Senegal, and Turkey. All seven are nations with strategic meaning for this country, a State Department official said.

“What we find is when we do these people-to-people exchanges, they basically open up communication in a way that might not be possible any other way,’’ Stock said. “Artists and Main Street America can have a conversation that we might not have if we were doing a government-to-government conversation.’’

Rachel Cooper, an adviser to the program, said Center Stage will bring some “equity and a kind of parity’’ to a cultural trade imbalance in which the United States is a heavy exporter.

“I think we’re not so good at importing,’’ said Cooper, the director of cultural programs and performing arts at the Asia Society in New York. “It’s not that it’s a concerted policy. But of course we have Hollywood, so our films are going out. There is so much of American culture that is available around the world.’’

Each Center Stage ensemble’s monthlong stay will begin with a performance at Washington’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The groups will tour the country individually between June and December 2012, visiting four to seven cities for days-long residencies that will encompass performances, workshops, and discussions.

To Blunk, it’s significant that two of the countries chosen for Center Stage have overwhelmingly Muslim populations. In Pakistan, 95 percent of people are Muslim; in Indonesia, 86.1 percent, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook.

“A lot of Americans don’t know much about countries that are Muslim-majority,’’ Blunk said. “There’s an assumption that all that happens from those countries is the production of terrorists - and that’s so wrong and distorted.’’

The popular perception of Haiti in the United States is also skewed and in need of rebranding, she added.

“When we think of Haiti, we think of earthquakes and cholera epidemics and political difficulties,’’ Blunk said. “This is an opportunity to show the cultural vibrancy of the Haitian people.’’

Center Stage, whose $1.25 million in State Department funding will be augmented by private funding as well as money from presenters at venues across the country, is intended to engage a wide swath of Americans in both its planning and its execution. It is also meant to serve as a showcase for this country.

“One of the reasons for these exchanges is when you meet Americans, you meet American values,’’ Stock said. “You do see Americans in their communities. You see the tolerance that we have. You see the diversity that we have in the United States. You see how we all come together to interact with each other.’’

Zeb Bangash, who was chosen to take part in Center Stage as half of the Pakistani singer-songwriter duo Zeb & Haniya, said from Lahore that she hopes their tour includes the South. That’s partly because Bangash (Mount Holyoke College class of 2004) and musical partner Haniya Aslam (Smith College class of 2002) have friends there, but also because they didn’t travel much outside the East Coast when they were students.

“Our first song ever was written in my dorm room in Mount Holyoke,’’ Bangash said.

“Back then,’’ Aslam said, “no one had really heard of Pakistan. Now everyone knows about Pakistan, and it’s not in a very good context. I don’t know; I’m not sure which I prefer.’’  The way Pakistan is portrayed abroad, she said, is “very one-dimensional.’’

“The things that are reported, it’s not as though they aren’t happening. It’s just that’s not all that’s happening, and that’s not all that our lives here are about,’’ Aslam said. “You know, when people hear that you’re a musician or even that you have a regular job and a regular life in what someone is perceiving to be a war zone, it comes as a shock.’’

Nonetheless, it wasn’t the opportunity to change American notions about Pakistan that attracted them to the program. Rather, they said, sounding like performers anywhere, it was the chance to play for a wider audience.

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at

© Copyright 2011 Globe Newspaper Company.