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Shanghai’d, or the USA Pavilion as a Corporate Theme Park

Jun 8, 2010

Co-author: Hailey Woldt

Let’s begin with the positive: the United States is present at the World Expo in Shanghai. The Secretary of State deserves praise for making this possible, by launching an eleventh hour fundraising drive, after the previous administration had done virtually nothing (besides rejecting a proposal that included Frank Gehry as architect). The Chinese cared enough about the U.S. presence to have contributed both public and private funds to guarantee that the U.S. showed up for Expo Shanghai 2010.

In this age of globalization and social networking, a World Expo might seem a quaint throwback to a bygone era. But for many countries, including, notably, China, it offers a global platform to present strengths and salient characteristics to the world. For example, Japan, known for its technology, powers its “green” pavilion partly from the footsteps of visitors who are treated to violin-playing robots, a single-person prototype car by Toyota, as well as a historical exhibition on Japan’s envoys to China. In its pavilion, Indonesia highlights cultural diversity; the United Arab Emirates emphasizes sustainability, a key focus of the country, with a recyclable dune shaped pavilion. Almost without exception the pavilions dazzle with innovative architecture, and with unusual shapes, colors, and lighting, as in the case of the United Kingdom’s pavilion-- a futuristic display of 60,000 transparent fiberglass rods with different seeds enclosed at the ends, designed by British artist Thomas Heatherwick.

So far, the Secretary of State’s comment, “It’s fine,” seems to be the highest praise the U.S. Pavilion, with all the design brilliance of a suburban shopping mall, has garnered. In the only positive article we could find, besides the one written by the Secretary General of the Pavilion himself, one of the 160 Chinese speaking “student ambassadors”—a brilliant idea — notes the smiling responses of Chinese visitors to the welcome messages — in Chinese — from famous Americans ranging from Kobe Bryant to President Obama. But the student ambassador Dan Redford also observes that the USA Pavilion lacks anything about “our history, our education system, or our role in global affairs… American democracy, or elements of our past and present that have come to define us as Americans.”

If all that is missing, what on earth could the content of the Pavilion be? The main event appears to be a “4-D” film about a girl working with her neighbors to make a vacant city lot into a garden, a theme evidently considered in keeping with the Expo’s theme, “Better Cities, Better Life.” The ambiguous location has been identified by some as China; at any rate, it is not recognizable as America. But no matter, because the film really is all about the special effects—shaking seats, real mist, — “a sense of immersion for our visitors,” according to the Pavilion’s website. If this sounds eerily like Disney World, you are right. One of the two people responsible for the design and content of the Pavilion is Nick Winslow, a special effects professional and theme park advisor (the other was Ellen Eliasoph, a partner in the Beijing branch of a leading American law firm).

Others have delved into the murky background of how these two private citizens with little relevant background or expertise were given free rein to determine the design and content of the Pavilion. We have a question that has not been asked to date: why did the State Department not apply the tried and true approach to corporate sponsorship that museums and performing arts companies have used for years, namely that the fundraisers fundraise, the corporate sponsors sponsor, and the experts execute? When a corporation sponsors a museum exhibition, they do not curate it. When a private funder underwrites a dance, play, or opera, they do not select and perform the work in question. When a government funds an exhibition at the Venice Biennale, the grants officer does not curate it. In each case, a curator/choreographer/artistic producer is hired to make the artistic and cultural decisions. If corporations act as curators and artistic directors as well as funders, it can hardly come as a surprise that the result is… well, corporate.

“A supply storage shed,” “a temporary NASA administrative building,” a “combination Bose Sound System/Air Purifier,” are some of the choice descriptions of the USA Pavilion, designed by Canadian architect Clive Grout. Canadian architect? Were there no architects in the U.S. up to the task? The only explanation we could find is that Grout is a “long-time associate of Winslow.”

Similarly, how could the U.S., arguably the global leader in film, be represented by a “4-D” extravaganza that would be at home at a theme park? If film was the chosen medium, why was a qualified curator not hired to do the programming? There are plenty of curators and experts who could have assembled moving, thrilling, and thought-provoking film selections. Who knows, films that actually touch upon some of the key characteristics of American society and history might have been included. Instead, at a cost of US $23 million the U.S. offers a film on the greening of an unidentifiable location, plus a short with leading Americans—and corporate representatives—talking about how they have added to the well-being of their communities. How to explain this mystery? Once again, it helps to be a friend of Nick Winslow, as was Bob Rogers, CEO of BRC Imagination Arts, the firm hired to coordinate the Pavilion programming.

The sorry tale of no-bid contracts and cronyism is bad enough, but most regrettable, and baffling of all is the implicit decision made from the outset to relegate the design and content—the medium and the message—of the Pavilion to the private sector. It almost appears that the State Department does not take the power of cultural outreach and “soft power” seriously.

At this time of budget constraints, a public expenditure on a World Expo, even one in China, probably could not be justified (even though, it is the largest Expo ever, and will be seen by an estimated 75 million people, and countries such as Japan and Australia have spent $140 million and $75 million respectively on their pavilions). And while it might be a stretch to match the brilliance of past publicly funded exhibitions, notably Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome at the Montreal Expo of 1967, the lamentable form and content of the USA Pavilion could have been avoided if someone had taken this important opportunity for cultural outreach seriously. Creative products number among the U.S.’s top three exports; American architects, filmmakers, writers, artists, dancers, musicians, and actors are global leaders in their fields, yet none were enlisted. The varied dimensions of America’s story are examined in ways entirely consistent with the country that stands for freedom of speech in film, theater, visual arts and other forms of expression, and yet the USA Pavilion says nothing about what makes America unique.

The Pavilion in Shanghai is just the most visible example of the outsourcing of America’s outreach to the world. Northrop Grumman and Boeing no longer vie only for aerospace contracts; they also compete for “smart power” projects in areas from aid to “strategic communication.” To some degree this acknowledges budget realities. But it also reflects the continuing diminution of cultural outreach or “soft power” approaches within the State Department. Whether it was cynicism, other priorities, or an active dismissal of the importance of crafting a message for the Pavilion (beyond its mere existence) does not really matter. The result is $61 million dollars spent, and an opportunity lost.

If the U.S. does not take the power of cultural diplomacy and “soft power” seriously enough to invest time and money, there is one superpower that does: China.


Cynthia P. Schneider is a CPD Research Fellow and Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy, Georgetown University. Her full bio can be found here.

Hailey Woldt is the Research Director of the Global Initiative for Cultural Diplomacy, sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, Georgetown University, and the Brookings Institution. She was formerly an Ibn Khaldun Research Fellow at American University and a research associate at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University for the project "Journey Into America," the most comprehensive study of the Muslim community in America to date. In 2006, she traveled to eight Muslim countries for fieldwork and contributed to the book Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization by Akbar Ahmed. She has published extensively in newspapers and journals and has lectured at several universities and think tanks. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service with a certificate in Muslim-Christian understanding and a degree in culture and politics.

Comments

What a sad contrast to the great US pavillions and exhibitions of the past -- Moscow '59 -- Montreal -- the bicentennial shows and so forth. For a reminder of those days check out the memoir by designer of the best of those Jack Masey written with Conway Lloyd Morgan: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Cold-War-Confrontation/Jack-Masey/e/978...

This said, respect to the countries that have made an effort and apparently still feel that they have something to say!

Thank you, Professor Schneider, for your fine summary article on the significance of the US presence in Shanghai. I hope there are hearings in the Capitol soon, in time to save the Expos to come and more broadly, public diplomacy that speaks for the public. The appearance of articles that finally call a spade a spade, written by distinguished authorities like you, is gratifying to those of us who have been involved since the State Department first issued its RFP in 2006. We endured rebuff after rebuff trying to raise the alarm, to signal that all was not right in the state of American public diplomacy. Now perhaps the situation can be repaired.

I'm not as impressed with the Secretary Clinton's fundraising efforts as you are, as they seem to me to reify the very policy that we each condemn. By not acting to restructure the process as soon as she was confirmed in 2009, Secretary Clinton made the US Pavilion crisis unavoidable. A high-quality, digitally pioneering pavilion could have been built at half the price of the current building, in half the time, as I have explained elsewhere. In that case, a modest congressional appropriation would have been sufficient to create the US Pavilion without setting a precedent for wholly private funding. Secretary Clinton never requested an appropriation. It was as if, badly advised, the Secretary panicked; but that's not like her. She should provide her account so that we can appreciate the motives for her action.

That aside, it's heartening that so many public diplomacy authorities including John Brown, Matt Armstrong, and you, and journalist including the New York Times Mark Landler, the Washington Post's Ezra Klein, NPR's Louisa Lim, and Shanghai correspondent Adam Minter have converged on the same conclusions. First, that a failed process resulted in a failed US Pavilion. And second, that the process can be repaired -- and must be -- to ensure that future US international representations are more successful culturally as well as well as commercially.

The wheels of government are turning, also. The IRS may be looking into the consequences of making tax exempt a $60 million-plus de facto commercial enterprise. More to the point, Congressional foreign policy experts led by Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, are taking a serious interest in the pavilion process. By the time the Yeosu, Korea 2012 World Expo takes place, the 2010 experience may be only an anomalous memory -- but the missed opportunity for Chinese-American communications should never be forgotten.

As always Cynthia your insight and candor is greatly appreciated, more Americans should be aware of what's going on in Shanghai and the "process" for developing something that reflects upon our entire nation should be completely overhauled with cultural experts like you leading the way. I hope there will be a "Lessons Learned" inquiry post Expo if not before.

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