Strict Visa Regulations Discourage Visiting Artists

China's Golden Dragon Acrobats were scheduled to start their American tour in September, but performances were held up because of visa problems.
China's Golden Dragon Acrobats were scheduled to start their American tour in September, but performances were held up because of visa problems. (Art Fegan Entertainment)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Halle Orchestra, one of Great Britain's oldest symphony orchestras, has not toured the United States in more than a decade, so spirits were high when the group secured dates at Lincoln Center and in Upstate New York for performances last winter.

But when the orchestra learned that to get their entry visas, all 85 musicians -- every last cellist, oboist and piccolo player -- would have to travel from their Manchester headquarters to the U.S. Embassy in London for personal interviews, electronic fingerprinting and facial-recognition scans, it scrapped the trip. Budgeting for airfare and travel costs to New York was one thing, but simply getting everyone to the embassy at the same time, along with hotel bills and fees for the visas themselves, would have cost an additional $80,000, said marketing director Andy Ryans.

"It was very simply money that we didn't have," Ryans explained. "We were desperate to go to the States, but our hands were absolutely tied."

Theirs aren't the only ones. To perform in this country, foreign artists of all stripes -- punk rockers, ballet dancers, folk musicians, acrobats -- are funneled through a one-size-fits-all "nonimmigrant" visa process whose costs and complications have become prohibitive, according to booking agents, managers and presenters, such as the Kennedy Center, who program and market the performers. Visiting businesspeople face similar security hurdles put in place since Sept. 11, 2001. But artists' visa petitions also require substantial documentation to satisfy the "sustained international recognition" requirement for the type of visa (called a "P-1") issued to many performing artists.

Arts organizations say they have become reluctant to book foreign performers because of the risk of bureaucratic snags. Advocates are lobbying Congress to pass a bill, called the ARTS Act (for "Arts Require Timely Service"), that would fast-track artists' visa petitions.

"It's become kind of a nightmare to continue in the international business," said Jeff Laramie, whose Middleton, Wis.-based SRO Artists Inc. watched a three-week, $250,000 tour by the Peking Opera of Jilin -- a troupe it had brought over in the past -- dissolve in 2003 when the company's visas were denied.

Presenters acknowledge that some of these artists might have gotten into the country if they had followed the regulations to the letter and filed well in advance. Delays can stem from lapses in an artist's paperwork, or a group's balking at an optional, $1,000 "premium processing" fee that speeds the visa ruling.

The larger problem, many in the arts say, is that so many hefty costs have to be paid before a dollar is earned at the box office -- and with no guarantee that a visa will be granted. Soon after Sept. 11, the State Department rolled out its Biometric Visa Program, requiring all applicants to undergo fingerprinting and have photographs taken at the nearest U.S. consulate each time they apply. Previously, not all visa applicants had to appear in person. This new mandate is particularly costly for artists who want to perform here.

Janice Jacobs, a senior consular affairs official at the State Department, said she is aware of the difficulties that the arts world faces in getting entry visas: "If we know there's a performance and they have to be here by a certain date, all of our posts have procedures to get people in quickly," she said. While citing the importance of security measures, she added, "the welcome mat is definitely out for legitimate visitors."

It is unclear how many foreign groups have canceled their tours because of visa problems, but in interviews, arts presenters and booking agents here and in other countries cited it as an urgent concern. Sandra Gibson, president of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, said her group joined with others to form an arts visa task force, which in April won the ability for artists to file for visas up to a year in advance, instead of six months, in hopes of clearing up paperwork snags well before scheduled performances.

There are 7,000 professionally staffed performing arts presenters in the country. In 2001, 75 percent of them were willing to bring in international artists -- a figure that has dropped to near 60 percent in 2006, Gibson said.

The sad irony, in the view of some arts organizations and advocates, is that as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on and cultural divisions abound, the unifying effects of art are needed now more than ever. But, they say, visa rules are making it harder to foster cultural exchange.

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