Monday 30 July 2012

Guest post: "Here´s to cultural diplomacy", by Caroline Miller (UK)

Caroline Miller is the dynamic and visionary director of Dance UK. She is one of those people who have the capacity to ‘think big’ and who work hard to make things actually happen, inspiring others to join and work with them. One of Dance UK´s major achievements was the opening, last April, of the first clinic for injured dancers, integrated in the british National Health System. While participating in the Kennedy Center´s Summer International Fellowship this year, Caroline realized she has one more role: that of a cultural diplomat. In this post, she shares her thoughts on the actual role cultural diplomacy can play in fostering mutual understanding. I couldn´t have wished for a more beautiful text to celebrate the completion of our second year at the Kennedy Center. mv

DESH, by Akram Khan Company. Choreographer/Performer: Akram Khan.  (Photo: © Richard Haughton)

I’ve been thinking a lot about cultural diplomacy in the last week. As the Director of Dance UK, the main advocacy organization supporting the professional dance sector in Britain, I’m concerned about raising the profile of dance in society whilst arguing for its value. I spend much less time thinking about the role dance has in promoting and showcasing British culture and society.

This changed when I met a group of cultural attaches last week as part of the Summer International Arts Management Fellowship at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. All experienced American civil servants, the group was about to leave for new postings around the world and they were keen to meet the international arts managers. Though I’d worked with various cultural attaches in London and benefitted from their support for specific arts projects, this was the first time I’d really stopped to think about the strategic purpose of these government positions and what they were trying to achieve in the big picture.

According to the Institute of Cultural Diplomacy, the American political scientist and author Dr. Milton C. Cummings defines cultural diplomacy as “the exchange of ideas, information, values, systems, traditions, beliefs, and other aspects of culture, with the intention of fostering mutual understanding”. This definition could have been used to describe my experience as a Summer International Fellow at the DeVos Institute of Arts Management. Does that mean I am a cultural diplomat?

What I’d thought was a great personal opportunity for my professional development and to take back skills and management ideas to my organisation, was actually just as much about me becoming an ambassador promoting the ideas, values and culture of Britain.

Reflecting on completing my first year as a Summer International Fellow in 2011, I had talked to my friends about my surprise that globalization and homogenization of culture wasn’t as common as I’d accepted. I’d spent an intense month living and working with arts managers from 28 countries and they had talked about their dramatically different working worlds in countries such as Zimbabwe, Egypt, Pakistan, Moldova and Cambodia, amongst others. Day to day we exchanged ideas, traditions and value systems from our countries. “In my country” became our collective catch-phrase.

Our experiences were wildly different. From the regions which didn’t have a culture of buying tickets for arts events to countries where political corruption and revolutions were the back-drop and influencer of arts production.

Working alongside arts managers from five continents, I’d been elevated from being the manager of a dance organization to “the Brit”, to the representative of an entire colonial history! Though it was said in jest, the stereotype of colonial British Empire was real and still current.

What, however, wasn’t stereotyped was the interest and excitement around British arts, whether it was theatre, musicals, visual arts, museums, music or dance.  This was the area of British-ness that caught international colleagues’ interest and imaginations. It was through the arts that people had gained a more sophisticated understanding of British society, values and beliefs. This for me was enough to prove the value of cultural diplomacy and the role of the arts as an effective communicator for the best attributes of individual nations.

Entity, by Wayne McGregor/Random Dance, 2008. (Photo © Ravi Deepres)
I’ve had to think again about how I talk about the value of dance in the UK, whether it is the British Bangladeshi Akram Khan whose show Desh explores a fictionalized relationship with his father (watch here); Wayne McGregor/Random Dance’s abstract contemporary dance mixed with new technologies (watch here); Rosie Kay’s dance performance Five Soldiers, which she researched by training with the army and spending time at the Birmingham hospital which cares for injured soldiers returning from Afghanistan (watch here); or DV8’s Can We Talk About This which explored freedom of speech, censorship and offence in British Society (watch here). Together, they say more about the real Britain of today, rich with tensions between tradition and modernity, religion and spirituality than any essay could capture.

By the time you read this post, the London Olympics will have opened and over one billion people worldwide will have watched the spectacular opening ceremony. As I write, I have only the smallest clues as to what the event will hold as details. We know that it will include many of Britain’s greatest artists and talents and its theme is “the Isles of Wonder”. The creative team, including Danny Boyle (known worldwide as the Director of the film Slumdog Millionaire), has promised a singularly British show. The Daily Telegraph reports that the show starts in a “green and pleasant land”, passes through the industrial revolution and a celebration of the right to protest, and the public service of British National Health Service nurses and maybe another key element of British life… the big Saturday night out. It also promises to be that rare thing in an opening ceremony – funny! Following the dress rehearsal, one participant tweeted that the ceremony is “Splendidly British and magnificently bonkers”!

Whatever the London 2012 opening ceremony includes, I am sure it will effectively communicate to a mass audience more about modern Britain in just one show than politicians have achieved in decades. And my parting thought: we must remember that no matter what our countries financial difficulties (or not), the arts have a role to play challenging the idea of what a country is and stands for… So here’s to cultural diplomacy.

Caroline Miller is Director of Dance UK, the national voice for the professional dance sector in the United Kingdom. She started her career as a box office assistant, before working as a theatre marketing manager and a publicist for major London arts venues including the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Southbank Centre and Sadler’s Wells Theatre. She was Head of Publicity for the international art book publishers Phaidon Press. Caroline won a fellowship from the European Union identifying outstanding female emerging cultural leaders which enabled her to undertake the first MA in Cultural Leadership at City University, London in 2007. At Dance UK she created the Dance Manifesto which was presented to the British government and inspired similar documents around the world and she established and runs the All Party Parliamentary Dance Group which is a group of politicians who champion dance in government.

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