NEW YORK—"I don’t have any idea what culture is," artist Richard Tuttle declared early in a panel discussion in the library of the Metropolitan Club in Manhattan during the Blouin Creative Leadership Summit yesterday. He continued, "I also don’t have any idea what social change is." Those would be dramatic words in any context, but spoken during a conversation titled "Cultural Diplomacy: Culture as a Vehicle for Dialogue and Peace" and including many of today’s leading figures in global culture, they carried a particular charge.
The panel’s moderator, Benjamin Genocchio, editor-in-chief of Art+Auction magazine, offered in response that he viewed culture as the "collective stories of people and places" and "the idea of social change is how those stories have a broader impact beyond individual people and institutions." Tuttle looked skeptical, but he allowed the panel to proceed, with international leaders from a variety of industries exploring the potential for culture to realize lasting change.
Juan Ignacio Vidarte, the director-general of the Guggenheim Bilbao, noted that cultural development can "improve the self esteem of a community" and that when developed in conjunction with local culture, "a new social asset is created." For many government planners over the past decade, that has been a compelling narrative, exemplified by the popularity of Vidarte’s museum. But Francesco Bandarin, assistant-director general for culture at UNESCO urged caution, noting that culture can also become a factor in conflict. "It can lead to an explosion," he warned.
The Guggenheim Bilbao has also become a popular model for many leaders in the museum and government worlds since it has been a source of economic development — which is not, of course, the same thing as fostering dialogue, much less peace. "Do museums foster change, and do they foster communication, or are they really engines for economic development?" Lisa Dennison, chairperson of Sotheby’s North and South American operations asked early on, a question made more provocative since it was being raised by the woman who previously worked for the Guggenheim, which earned critics and admirers for its willingness to expand to new cities.
Dennison cited biennials as the cultural model that has been most effective at realizing change. The Venice Biennale, she said, "has brought together thousands of people working in the creative and intellectual industries, creating a context for the creation of knowledge and exchange." Her colleague from the auction world, Kathleen Doyle, of Doyle New York, added that for-profit companies can also be valuable cultural players, helping to create best-practices for the repatriation of objects and raising money for important causes.
While academics and policymakers have sometimes treated the private sector with suspicion in cultural discourse, Genocchio noted that institutions like auction houses and galleries can provide a form of cross-culture appreciation. "Monetary value is, to some extent, something that is universally understood, as offensive as that may be to some people," he said. The rise of prices in the Chinese contemporary art market attracted newly ascendant businesspeople to the market, he said.
The idea that the art world can be a major industry is a relatively recent development in American culture, artist Alex Katz noted. "It was a very small occupation," he said, when he was starting in New York in the 1950s. "We were living illegally, and there was practically no hope of making any money." The growth of the art industry can be directly attributed to education, he maintained. "With the Marshall Plan and the G.I. Bill, a lot of people went to school," he said. "A lot of them studied art." Still, he added, there aren’t necessarily more great artists today. "They used to say that there were 100 interesting painters," he shared, a hint of mischief in his voice. "I don’t think that’s changed."
Louise Blouin, chair of the Louise Blouin Foundation and CEO of Louise Blouin Media, which publishes ARTINFO, also cited education as a vital component in realizing social change. She spoke of growing up in Quebec, with various parties at war over whether English or French should be the area’s dominant language. "I thought that every human being should be speaking at least five languages," she said. "Why are they fighting for French or English?" she recalled thinking. She urged people to make room for culture, and take it seriously.
Zarin Mehta, the executive director of the New York Philharmonic, noted that he, too, spent time in Quebec, and said that, working for its symphony orchestra, he was able to extend its audience beyond its traditional Anglophone supporters to include Francophone residents through careful lobbying. Music, he said, can unite people, as was the case in September 2001, when the Philharmonic presented Brahms’s Requiem in New York following the September 11th terrorist attack. "It was probably one of the most moving experiences that I have ever had," he said. "People walked out holding hands."
As the talk neared its end, Tuttle looked less concerned with the course of debate. "I’m somewhat mollified," he admitted. "There’s science and applied science, culture and applied culture," he noted. "What you’re talking about is applied culture." Given the government deficits that threaten to cripple nations throughout much of the world, however, one could not help but wonder how long such applied cultural initiatives, however valuable, will be able to continue. "The big problem I have is that our government is spending 50 cents of every dollar on war," Katz said. "It doesn’t make sense as economics."
Also looming is the fact that, in an increasingly digital world, culture can undergo massive shifts with the click of a button. Terrorist threads and extremist propaganda can be spread as quickly as the latest hit song, without the approval or funding of government authorities. "Some of that is very exciting," Mehta said, before adding, his voice lower now, "But a lot of that is, to me, very frightening."