AN AMERICAN pianist tours France and Germany. An American poet reads in Poland. "Black Stallion," "Shane" and "Singin' in the Rain" are seen by 4 million Chinese (tickets 18 cents). An art show goes to Bulgaria, a photo show to Brazil. The Valley Ramblers perform in Kuala Lumpur. A new American play, "Goober's Descent," startles Budapest. Willis Conover, known behind the Iron Curtain as Dr. Jazz for his 27 years of broadcasting the likes of Woody Herman and Dave Brubeck over Voice of America, visits Russia and is greeted by--what?--the Leningrad Dixieland Band . . .
It's not exactly news that the USIA's "Arts America" program exports American culture, from Ansel Adams photographs to off-off-off Cafe La Mama theater, all over the world.
But would you believe an annual budget of $2 million--out of USIA's $489 million?
For 120 countries?
"We don't get to every one each year, of course," said Juliet Antunes, who heads the Arts America staff. "That budget total hasn't changed in the past eight years, though obviously it buys less today. Our program is based on what our overseas posts tell us they need. Some places, like England, get lots of exposure to American artists without our help. And there are a few countries with which we have formal cultural treaties, like China, Russia and Eastern Europe. Basically, we try to go where there's not much cultural exchange."
(The question of the United States' role in international artistic festivals and competitions is a different story. On Tuesday, a one-day conference will be held at the Kennedy Center featuring USIA director Charles Wick, J. Carter Brown of the National Gallery, Alistair Cooke and several top museum people, who will discuss U.S. policy on the Venice Biennale, the Tchaikovsky competitions, film festivals and so on.)
So who gets to go on Arts America's prestigious trips? Here is 27-year-old Robert Noland, a bright young pianist who doesn't even have a manager and is still a scholarship student in the Juilliard doctoral program, making a solo tour of Western Europe for six weeks, from Paris to Berlin and points between. How did he get picked?
Noland is part of a pilot project, "The Artistic Ambassador," which will show the world new American musical talent. When he isn't performing, he'll hold master classes and meet conservatory students to talk about the latest American music.
He was chosen from a list of nominees by several top musicians. His credentials are just fine: a Fulbright scholar, first prize in the New York Young Artists international competition, a recital in Carnegie Hall.
"Since '78 we've been working with the National Endowment for the Arts," said Antunes. "We use them as an artistic advisory group. We come to them with a shopping list, and we want, say, a repertory theater to go into X number of countries, and their theater panel recommends five or six troupes. Then we see which ones are available, and gradually we boil it down to one company."
Another method, used on the "American Photography of the '60s and '70s" show, is to competitively select a curator, who then arranges the show. The staff bends over backwards, as one might expect, to avoid any sign of favoritism.
"If we don't have an NEA evaluation of a group, we get one. We always consult outside. Sometimes we pick up art shows that have already been put together by a museum."
Often the program piggybacks on a private tour, as when Aaron Copland, visiting England to conduct the London Symphony, was asked if he could give some time to USIA. He was delighted. He spent a day talking shop with young British composers. Another time, an American dance troupe, already booked on a tour of Japan, was asked to extend its schedule a couple of weeks to visit Malaysia and other places for the government.
"We get everything we possibly can out of these things," observed Antunes. "We talk the artists into doing workshops or lecturing or holding master classes, spreading their influence and making each trip count. Sometimes they do make connections and start friendships. That's our goal: long-term cultural exchanges."
The foreign post involved often helps pay for a tour or gets local institutions to share the costs. Private American money is not scorned, either. When the New York Philharmonic toured Latin America recently, Citibank paid most of the considerable bill.
Deciding who gets to go where is a subtle and informal process. What is great for Bogota', which has a binational cultural center to encourage exchanges, may be a waste of time for Tel Aviv, with its 90 art galleries and abundant American connections. Often the cultural attache' in the field influences choices and directions.
Sally Grooms has been a cultural officer for 12 years, three in India, five in Colombia and four in Israel. For her, it was always a matter of analysis, of reaching beyond the polite little soirees attended mainly by Americanophiles and expatriates to tell the rest of the country some things about America that they didn't know.
"First you have the principle of intersecting interests," she said. "I can sell Arthur Hailey abroad all I want, but I don't. I would rather give them Janet Flanner (the longtime Paris correspondent for The New Yorker). You have the intersection of my interest in literature and their willingness to buy it, what I want to say and what they want to hear. Basically, we're didactic, educational. We're trying to teach them something subliminal about our culture through this experience."
One year she brought "Ain't Misbehavin'" to Israel.
"Israelis think they know Americans. There are so many Americans living there. We try to show what a diverse people we are, that we're not all New York Jews. That's why we brought in Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem: He started it to bring black kids in off the street, and that's something they should know about us in Israel. We sent his people out to the dancing schools and made a whole lot of contacts: dance, black interests and so on."
Knowing who those contacts are, identifying what Grooms calls "the gatekeepers" who can lead to much broader connections, is an important part of the job. Sometimes it's as simple as checking the course catalogue of a university. The names are passed along when an officer leaves, but the hard part is keeping up the relationships themselves.
"The bottom line is personal," she said. "You put down roots, you learn the language, and you get so involved you can't tell whether it's vocation or avocation, and there's pain when you leave."
Grooms found herself using a pointillist approach, not attempting to sum up the entire American experience with each exhibit or troupe, but picking idiosyncratic and varied artists in all fields--"the best!"--and letting these very different people form a pattern. Seen at a distance, they gave a fairly accurate picture of the American arts scene.
For instance, the Ansel Adams show hardly represented American photography, but it was one dot on the canvas that explained a lot about where many of today's photographers are coming from. The Museum of Modern Art's 50th anniversary show hardly represented all museums, but "it said something about our professionalism in the arts, which is one of our messages. When there's a piano competition in Israel, you find that a large proportion of the finalists are American or American-trained. Training: That's what New York City is all about, in the arts. What art patronage is all about."
Scale is not the most important factor. Twenty thousand people saw the Harlem dancers. Only a handful met theatrical producer Joseph Papp, but those contacts were parlayed by the media into a valuable exchange of ideas.
And what, in the end, does it all come down to? Grooms tells of the time she brought one of La Mama's avant-garde productions to Israel. It was a trilogy of classic Greek plays in nonsense syllables, which reduced the tragedies to something so fundamental that they drifted over into the realm of dance.
"I heard a man behind me as we left the theater that night," she said. "He was really excited. 'These Americans,' he kept saying, 'they've got something! . . . ' "