THE FIFTY-FOUR PARTICIPANTS of the Salzburg Global Seminar Session 490 on “Public and Private Cultural Exchange-Based Diplomacy” met at an auspicious moment in the evolution of international cultural engagement. As comment after comment at the Seminar made clear, there is a palpable sense of opportunity in the field. The tone and texture of cultural discourse, the range of included voices in creative practices, the organizational and technological infrastructure for conducting transnational cultural exchanges, are all undergoing a sea change—and generally for the better.
A defining fact of our time is that regions formerly consigned to a subordinate position beside wealthy states are claiming a more prominent role in global affairs. They are demanding more balance and sensitivity in cultural exchanges. Some find themselves in the position of being able to finance the sort of programs that had earlier cast them in the role of passive beneficiaries of Western exchange initiatives. Economic and cultural confidence come hand-in-hand, rewriting the terms of engagement.
The participants, hailing from twenty-eight countries, welcomed a turn toward more diversity and inclusivity, not just in the range of countries involved in cultural relations but also in the spectrum of content flowing through the system. Exchanges are encompassing a wider array of creative expressions—from high to low, and from international styles to local ones—going well beyond the traveling productions of elite cultural institutions that have prevailed in recent years.
The Seminar members in Salzburg were united in the belief that technology can enrich and amplify cultural engagement, with physical constraints on exchanges evaporating, and with the full promise of digital media innovation still on the horizon. They foresaw a vital role for private-sector and civil-society players going forward, even in countries where the state claims dominance in cultural life. The proliferation of public-private partnerships, attendees remarked, will deliver new resources to international exchanges, and also de-politicize them.
In a telling sign of a shift in attitudes, the validity of the term “cultural diplomacy,” and even of the recently popular formulation “soft power,” coined by former Harvard Kennedy School Dean Joseph S. Nye, Jr., were repeatedly questioned during the three- day meeting. With their intimations of hierarchy, instrumentalism, and conflict, these concepts were seen as an inheritance of a time when cultural exchanges and government policies were closely aligned. Seminar participants called for fresh terminology that accurately reflects the more autonomous and intertwined global cultural discourse of our day, where exchanges are not a corollary of state power, however soft and benign, but where transnational cultural interactions can constitute a “third space” of vibrant creativity—a realm of curiosity, meaning, collaboration, enterprise, and learning that is not directly beholden to either political or commercial interests.
The contribution of such a third space, as notes from a small-group discussion captured, is to provide a “context for facilitated international engagements that do not necessarily have pre-determined outcomes; a space for innovation and improvisation, for new ways of collaboration and for fostering multifaceted forms of international engagement, for creating new forms of partnerships with cultural organizations, activities, funders, networks.”
In one way or another, much of the Salzburg Seminar concerned itself with exploring new pathways in a rapidly emerging new global environment for the creation of such an open and autonomous space.