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Diplomatic Art

Diplomacy isn’t always about how the United Nations will recognize the Palestinians. Sometimes it’s about art.

The State Department is honoring five artists with its first Medal of Arts on Friday, as well as celebrating the 50th anniversary of its Arts in Embassies Program, which fosters cultural dialogue and diplomacy through artist exchanges and installations.

The honorees — Jeff Koons, Cai Guo-Qiang, Shahzia Sikander, Kiki Smith and Carrie Mae Weems — discussed diplomacy through art Thursday night with Glenn
Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

On Friday night, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will award the Medal of Arts to the five artists at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The invitation-only gala will feature a “sound suit” performance from musician/writer/film director Nick Cave, video projections by Jenny Holzer and Sikander and an interdisciplinary piece from photographer Weems and musician Jason Moran.

Instituted by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, AIE works with more than 3,000 artists to provide art for 200 buildings in 189 countries. Since 2003, the State Department has installed 58 permanent collections at U.S. embassies.

Although much of the art has remained behind locked doors in fortified embassies, AIE has tried to bring more publicly visible art to State Department facilities. At the U.S. embassy in Beijing, AIE installed a giant Koons sculpture of tulips visible through an opening in the wall. As part of its artist exchange program, AIE also sends several artists all over the world to hold workshops and lectures with local students.

Chinese-born artist Guo-Qiang, known for his work with gunpowder and explosives, already has made news this week. His 40-foot-tall “Black Christmas Tree” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery will be blown up 3 p.m. Friday.

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