Diplomacy on Display: Views from the Embassy

Gallery, Embassy of Australia

The Embassy of Australia looks as if it is under perpetual construction. The banner stretched across its facade doesn’t seem to care; it still tries to punch above its weight. Meant to obscure bare-bones scaffolding, it doubles as a larger-than-life aerial view of Sydney, showing water so teal that the tagline, “Experience the best of Australia,” could feasibly be construed as a genuine welcome instead of a cheap tourism line (and in an age when every young management consultant takes advantage of cheap flights to Iceland, a little bit of subliminal messaging never hurt).

Embassy of Australia in Washington, D.C. (Source: AgnosticPreacherKid/Wikimedia Commons)

Embassy of Australia in Washington, D.C. before the scaffolding went up | Source: AgnosticPreacherKid/Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

The art displayed within the Embassy’s gallery (‘Gallery at the Embassy of Australia’) has ranged from paintings by elderly Aboriginal women to drawings of World War II soldiers. Currently, images of cancer cells and microscopic organisms dot the Gallery’s walls as part of the newest exhibition: Incredible Inner Space.

But what is the point of these exhibitions? When curators put together these exhibitions in embassies, who do they imagine will view these works? Other than Halloween and open house days, only a particular set of people will walk through the embassy doors between the Gallery’s open hours (weekdays, 10 A.M. – 2 P.M.). And what these people come away with matters: often, they are diplomats looking to start conversations; businesspeople trying to assess their prospects; congressmen and policymakers discussing shared interests.

In that sense, an embassy’s choice in artwork then becomes less about supporting civic engagement in the arts and more about pushing a specific message aimed at a curated audience such that it achieves at least one of the following:

  1. Viewers gain awareness that Australia values XYZ: for example, by displaying paintings by Loongkoonan, one of the few Aboriginal Nyikina to make headway in the arts community, Australia demonstrates its recognition and cultural “woke”-ness in regards to its Aboriginal peoples.
  2. Viewers to the embassy interact with a policy priority: for example, Incredible Inner Space — a collection of photos from the Australian Microscopy & Microanalysis Research Facility (AMMRF) laboratory — reinforces Australia’s research commitments in the international community.
  3. Viewers are reminded of Australia’s relationship with the United States: for example, drawings of World War II soldiers recall Australia’s contributions alongside those of the Americans.

These are unsurprising conclusions. After all, as a conduit through which Australia establishes relationships with Washington politicos, the Embassy would be remiss if it neglected the role of arts as a subliminal – or perhaps even overt – means of diplomacy.

Part of using art as a means through which to carry out soft diplomacy can also mean that the works themselves become secondary to the message that they are intended to convey.

More interesting questions then arise: What is the thought process behind the decision to raise an artist’s work to the point at which it is used as a diplomatic tool? What happens to Loongkoonan’s work and its purpose – which illustrates the relationship between the Nyikina people and the Fitzroy River country – when businessmen, congressmen and policymakers view it on embassy walls? And what if Loongkoonan, upon being invited to display her work in a foreign land thousands of miles away, had decided to say no?

Art historian Henry Skerritt, who curated the Gallery’s 2016 exhibit on Loongkoonan, sought to provide visitors insight into the Nyikina culture. As of 2012, the Nyikina language was spoken by less than a dozen people. But maybe it is also worth considering that this exhibit came about just two years after the Federal Court of Australia granted native title to the Nyikina and Mangala peoples for 26,000 square kilometers of territory, ending nearly two decades of legal battles. When Skerritt stated, “Getting her paintings out to the world was me trying to repay some things I’ve learned,” perhaps the sentiment could be extended to Australia as a whole.

Similarly, Incredible Inner Space is meant to serve as tribute to “excellence in Australian research and the international research community.” At any other time, it would be received as an innocent celebration of the work of the global scientific community. But when constants of the past – the Great Barrier Reef, international scientific collaboration, and even the Five Eyes alliance – face futures of varying uncertainty, the exhibition takes on a more subversive tone.

Part of using art as a means through which to carry out soft diplomacy can also mean that the works themselves become secondary to the message that they are intended to convey. Through this lens, it makes sense that the Embassy’s website only provides information on the current exhibition. Unlike museums or galleries, which maintain information on previous exhibitions and featured artists, the Embassy provides no such accessible records. Determining which artists have exhibited at the Gallery involves a dogged hunt through artist CVs. Even more obscure are the histories of pieces hanging in the offices behind the main foyer and the Gallery — art regularly seen only by embassy staff. And if an artist ever declined an invitation to show art, that rejection would remain a non-issue – who would ever find out about a quiet naysayer and a quick replacement?

On September 11, 2001, then-Prime Minister John Howard, on a scheduled visit to Washington, D.C., was rushed to the basement of the Embassy of Australia after one of the hijacked planes hit the Pentagon. What was hanging on the walls of the Embassy then? As embassy staff, visitors, and Prime Minister John Howard himself huddled within the concrete building, did the paintings, photographs and prints – soft diplomacy on a normal day – take on new meaning? In the same way that baby boomers can pin down the details of their days on the date of JFK’s assassination, can those at the Embassy that morning recall the images decorating the walls that protected them?

Theresa Byrnes (Source: Greg Weight/Theresa Byrnes)

Theresa Byrnes | Source: © Greg Weight/Theresa Byrnes

A Google search for artists exhibited at the Gallery in 2001 reveals next to nothing. What is available, however, are details regarding the art exhibited in the wake of September 11:
Clare Belfrage’s Ranamok, a traveling series of blown glass vases; Theresa ByrnesLandscape of Mistake splatter paintings, described as having a “poetic, sometimes unforgettable intensity,” with “shrill and acid” colors.

To access embassy offices, visitors walk past a small multipurpose theatrette and along a hallway spangled with photographs of Australian prime ministers shaking hands with U.S. presidents. Beyond lies an interior that reflects the embassy’s original purpose: to serve as simply an office space for embassy staff. The building lacks the grandeur of its sisters in Paris (a Harry Seidler brainchild) and London. On any given day, diplomats, politicians, policymakers, and the occasional intrepid tourist rush in and out, paying little mind to the bland prints behind closed doors, and maybe taking in the small bit of public diplomacy that the Gallery offers.

While art cannot so easily communicate the finer nuances of the politics of the day, it can give weight and context to the work that takes place in the building, offering glimpses into a country’s soul.

This building will be razed in 2019, and in its place, a $237 million “environmentally-sensitive” structure will stand. There will be a central, glass-enclosed atrium, a gallery area, and a large open space looking towards the White House. This new building will be sleek, sunny.

Artist rendering of new Embassy of Australia (Source: Dezeen)

Artist rendering of new Embassy of Australia in Washington, D.C. | Source: Dezeen

There is no current construction on the embassy. The scaffolding is set up so that chunks of the building won’t — quite literally — fall off and injure visitors below. The happy banner covering the scaffolding is, in fact, merely a long-awaited alternative to its predecessor – a transparent, netted eyesore.

Rich Cohen, in his infamous drool-soaked interview with famed Australian export Margot Robbie, wrote, “Australia is America 50 years ago, sunny and slow, a throwback, which is why you go there for throwback people. They still live and die with the plot turns of soap operas in Melbourne and Perth, still dwell in a single mass market in Adelaide and Sydney. In the morning, they watch Australia’s Today show. In other words, it’s just like America, only different.”

Cohen’s Australia is an absurd, fetishized picture, likely informed by a blend of starstruck boyishness and an American habit of perceiving other countries in relation to the greatness of the United States (our mortality rates aren’t much lower, our poverty rates aren’t much lower either, but we have Hollywood, Harvard, Hopper, and Hemingway so it’s all good, right?).

What will this new building say about Australia? Who, and what, will be exhibited first? And perhaps more stirringly, what will America hear?

What gets lost in translation?

No trace of the current building will remain by the anticipated completion date of November 2021, just as no trace of the artists whose pieces decorated the walls of 2001 remain now. Will the new gallery space continue on in the tradition of soft diplomacy, of giving sly nods to Australian goings-on, or of hinting at points of contention where Australian policies overlap and then diverge from American interests?

Gallery: Embassy of Israel

There is no gallery at the Embassy of Israel. There is no themed exhibit to speak of, no place in which to stand and view art. You will not find signs or labels or names advertised. Rather, the entire building is so saturated in art that at times you may at times forget it’s even there.

Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C. (Source: Krokodyl/Wikimedia Commons)

Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C. | Source: Krokodyl/Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

An embassy acts as a vehicle to present its country from many angles, from policy priorities to cultural values. While art cannot so easily communicate the finer nuances of the politics of the day, it can give weight and context to the work that takes place in the building, offering glimpses into a country’s soul. But by curating art too carefully, that glimpse can lose its trueness; Israel allows its art to breathe, to speak for itself.

Some embassies — like those of Australia and Canada —succeed at creating spaces in which to peruse and celebrate art, thereby sanctifying it. By creating galleries, these embassies give a serious-minded purpose to their art: when you step into the gallery, it at once becomes your complete focus. It tells you that this society cares about its art, curates it, and sets aside time to enjoy it. Yet rather than placing art and politics proximately, the Embassy of Israel removes the boundaries entirely. You would be hard-pressed to find one room in the building, save restrooms, which does not contain a painting, photograph, or cultural poster. You do not need to set aside time to view art: it is already there. You don’t need to interrupt your business to view art; you live among it.

One of the most striking aspects of the Embassy’s layout is that art is everywhere. As with all embassies, only certain wings and rooms are open to guests. But even if you visited the Embassy and got yourself horribly lost, you would continue to see new, intriguing art pieces off the beaten path. Even in the basement, with its white walls and doors marked only in Hebrew (if at all), you would continue to find new pieces, new styles, new themes, and not at all repetitious. This layout is organic in a way that diplomatic work so often is not. Those paintings in the basement may as well have grown out of the wall.

Another asset of such an atmosphere is it makes the space feel lived in. At the end of the day, an embassy is essentially an office building; the Embassy of Israel allows its paintings to be decorations that make the office more pleasant to work in, and not just functional diplomatic tools. For a country often portrayed more for its politics than its people, this relaxed approach to art is fundamentally humanizing.

An embassy acts as a vehicle to present its country from many angles, from policy priorities to cultural values.

Likewise, the building’s architecture is unique, but doesn’t try too hard to be something it isn’t. With arches and sandy bricks that evoke the winding streets of the Old City, the Embassy feels like it could be a government building in Jerusalem, transported to Van Ness – but a government building nonetheless. Inside are offices and desks and swivel chairs, nothing out of the ordinary. But its halls are decorated with art that reminds you of how much of Israel the Embassy won’t show you.

A painting by Reuven Rubin (Source: J Greenstein & Co, Inc/Instagram)

A painting by Reuven Rubin | Source: J Greenstein & Co, Inc/Instagram

So what does the Embassy elect to show you with its art? Simply put, it shows you the story of Israel, as a piece of the greater story of the Jewish people, in all the ways that political discussion cannot. A diplomat can explain Israel to you, but its artwork can show it to you. A diplomat can tell you about Jerusalem, but the paintings will show you Jerusalem from a thousand angles: as it looks today, as it appears in our dreams, as we imagine it in our prayers.

Israel is a country in transition. Its history is both very, very young and very, very old. Whoever thought a “startup nation” would be built among holy sites? The artwork embodies the same fluidity of time and space. Some pieces are truly fresh and abstract, where the best interpretation is your own, just as Israel’s meaning is personal. A mosaic in the lobby reminds you of where you come from, like an ancestor’s hand reaching out. One series shows the faces of old bearded Jewish men, paternal faces that could depict Abraham as easily as a rabbi from the 90’s; in Israel, the intensely biblical and the shockingly modern blur into one face.

Israel is also a country experiencing a Renaissance; the building seems to say that most of our greatest artists have not yet been born. Sure, you might stumble across some names you recognize — a Reuven Rubin or a Menashe Kadishman — but these are not bragged of, and their names are not flaunted. You won’t find a tag or description except a signature in the corner of the canvas, or the occasional small-font nameplate devoid of embellishment. Some embassies and governments must preserve art, keep it alive; Israel doesn’t have to. Instead of scrounging for art to display, the Embassy has so much art that it cannot possibly display it all. Israel oozes with art; Israel is art.

Exhibit titled "INGATHERING" at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Source: Israel in the USA/Facebook)

Exhibit titled “INGATHERING” at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art | Source: Israel in the USA/Facebook

Through art, everyone who takes part in the work of the Israeli Embassy – employee, visitor, guest – is reminded us that we are all part of a story, that the history of this country is still being written. And in a hundred years, or a thousand, the story we are living may yet adorn an embassy wall.


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