- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2010

The State Department is poised to spend nearly a half-million dollars on a pair of upcoming art and architecture exhibitions in Italy, an expense that fiscal watchdogs criticize with the nation’s budget picture stuck in the red.

Plans call for the State Department to spend $350,000 so that U.S. artists can showcase their works at the 54th edition of the Venice Biennale next year, an international event that’s been dubbed the Olympics of modern art.

Department officials plan to spend an additional $100,000 so U.S.-based curators at nonprofit museums, galleries and arts and architecture schools can travel and display their works at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, scheduled for later this year.

State Department officials call the money well-spent. They say the exhibitions provide a way to showcase American creativity and innovation to the hundreds of thousands of visitors expected to view the exhibits from all over the world.


“The U.S. presence at the Venice Biennale, one of the world’s premier art and architectural fairs, is a demonstration of our commitment to engage with the world in the realm of culture and ideas,” State Department spokesman Michael J. Tran said.

But taxpayer watchdogs say the expenditures are emblematic of how federal agencies have strayed too far from their core missions at a time when the country is trillions of dollars in debt.

“And politicians wonder why people yell at town-hall meetings,” said David Williams, vice president of policy at the nonprofit Citizens Against Government Waste. “There’s no reason why taxpayers should be paying for art shows in Italy. It should be completely privately funded. This is not a core function of the government.”

Pete Sepp, vice president for policy and communications at the National Taxpayers Union, also questioned the expenditures, even though he said in better economic times, “International art exhibitions can be a great thing.

“But the fact is, this is a time of severe financial crisis for the U.S. government,” Mr. Sepp said. “We really have reached a point where our fiscal future is at stake, and that can mean some regrettable but vital decisions.”

Mr. Tran said the State Department already has cut back on what it spent in the past, with the Guggenheim Foundation and Philadelphia Museum of Art this year bearing the majority of expenses.

“The Department of State strives to be a fiscally responsible steward of public funds while achieving the president’s and secretary’s foreign-policy goals,” he said.

“In recent years, we have reduced our direct contributions for biennales by over $750,000 and have modified our strategy of support to ensure active engagement of the public by American artists and art professionals at these events.”

Mr. Tran said up to 250,000 people are expected to visit U.S. pavilion exhibits, adding that past U.S. participation “engaged foreign audiences, promoted mutual understanding and challenged negative perceptions about the United States while reinforcing positive ones.”

Details about the planned expenditures were obtained from public notices by the State Department announcing competition for grant money. In part, the funds will help pay for exhibition development, preparation, production, installation, shipping and travel costs for curators, according to the notice.

Eligibility is limited to nonprofit museums, schools, galleries and visual arts organizations. The program doesn’t require the museums or galleries to help pay for the trips, but the State Department grant notice suggests having other sources of cash lined up will help.

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