- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Ask what’s unique about capital cities, and one thing springs to mind: their embassies. And in Washington it’s the often untapped source of international cultural events those embassies provide. Embassies here stage an amazingly diverse program of exhibitions and events that cultural attaches use to showcase the best of their arts, their designs, their music and their people — usually at little or no cost.

With 170 embassies, Washington enjoys a heady mix of cultural offerings that are many and kaleidoscopic — films, art and photography exhibitions, embassy tours, concerts, performances, lectures, language and culture lessons, literary events.

Some embassies — those of Austria, France, Germany and Finland — offer bigger programs than others, but nearly every embassy has at least a few events a year. Anyone with even the faintest bit of curiosity about a country is sure to find something in Washington to satisfy it.

Imagine the menu: A Brazilian detective movie in English-subtitled Portuguese. An evening of Tunisian music at the ambassador’s home. Classes in Hungarian or Korean. A lecture on Swiss architecture. An exhibit of photos of the Australian outback by a German filmmaker now living in Los Angeles. A show of textiles whose designs look very like those on the towels splashed about at Crate & Barrel.

They’re all here.

Yet they are often not advertised, difficult to find out about and sparsely attended.

“People really don’t realize what’s out there,” says Jerome Barry, founder and producer of the Embassy Series (www.embassyseries.org), a unique program of embassy concerts by internationally famous musicians.

Mr. Barry has produced more than 250 concerts at 35 embassies in the past 10 years.

“We try to bridge the cultural gap between the countries and show people what different countries have to offer,” says Mr. Barry, who is always discovering new embassies to work with and new artists to showcase. This year, venues have included Hungary, Iceland, Tunisia, Malaysia, and Mexico as well as the old standbys Mr. Barry works with consistently — the embassies of Austria, Germany, Poland and Slovakia.

This season’s Embassy Series has already produced two historic events: the October concert featuring American pianist Thomas Tirino, which was the first public program held in the old Cuban Embassy on 16th Street NW (now the Cuban Interests Section) in more than four decades, and the December performance of Chinese violinist Bin Huang, which was the first concert presented at the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China by an arts organization.

Embassy Series concerts, which are always followed by cocktail receptions, often sell out months in advance. There are still several concerts left this season, including performances at the Malaysian, Tunisian, Austrian, and French embassies.

• • •

The possibility of mingling with ambassadors, diplomats and artists at a concert or an art opening can be exciting to some but daunting to others who may feel as though they don’t belong in that world. Locals, however, are precisely the people to whom cultural attaches say they most want to appeal.

“Ours is very much a local crowd. My job is to pick the things that are best for the local audience,” says Tuula Yrjo-Koskinen, cultural counselor at the Finnish Embassy. “There’s a whole big audience that we have coming here time after time.”

The public can often attend opening receptions of art exhibitions at embassies. Washingtonians who want to attend can check embassy Web sites for information on openings or join embassy mailing lists to be sent invitations.

“People come to embassy functions because they want to meet interesting people at the reception,” Mr. Barry says. “People network at these concerts.”

But that’s not what it’s all about, he says. It’s about taking advantage of the unique opportunity Washingtonians have to experience international cultural events in embassy settings. In many other countries, embassies (often guarded by armed soldiers) are simply places to get visas, but in Washington, they have become centers of national culture that can be openly visited by anyone who’s interested.

That said, it is undeniable that the post-September 11 need for increased security, particularly among partners in the coalition that went to war in Iraq, has put a crimp in some embassies’ accustomed style.

“Those of us who are strongly in alliance with the U.S. have had to increase our security,” says Trevlyn Gilmour, cultural projects manager at the Australian Embassy, which until 2001 had a new show every four weeks in its Gallery 1601.

Today the Australian Embassy, Mr. Gilmour says, mounts only six to eight exhibitions a year, all by appointment only. “After the opening night, very few people see the exhibitions,” he adds.

So no matter which embassy a visitor chooses, he or she should be prepared to walk through metal detectors and show identification. Most, however, are not nearly as tight as the Australian Embassy.

• • •

Can there be too many embassy gatherings? Their sheer number allows many of them to slip by unnoticed, says Richard Marble, who a few years ago created Embassy Events, a publication and Web site (www.embassyevents.com) that provides a monthly listing of events at embassies.

“Because of the volume of events, it’s unfortunate that embassies are underappreciated for their cultural value,” he says.

“All of these great things were coming to town, and people didn’t know about them. Even the concierges didn’t know, and they know everything,” Mr. Marble says of the state of affairs before he started his list.

Mr. Marble doesn’t charge embassies for listing their events. It’s more of a “goodwill publication,” he says.

“We realized from the start that some embassies couldn’t afford to pay. We didn’t want it to become an elitist thing, so we offer this as a service to embassies.”

Embassies can be quite competitive with one another in their cultural offerings, which makes it all the better for the audience. Many smaller embassies aren’t big enough to hold art exhibitions or don’t have sufficient space to hold concerts, so they turn to outside venues to provide the space.

Ambassador Claudia Fritsche, for example, opened the Embassy of Liechtenstein almost a year and a half ago in rented office space at 1300 I St. NW and was eager to begin introducing Washingtonians to Liechtensteiner artists by holding cultural events. The first exhibition, “Connections — Earth and Sky — Canvas and Color” by Elisabeth Buchel, was held last fall at CP Artspace, almost next door at 1350 I St.

Mrs. Fritsche happened to pass the gallery on her way to work each morning, and she approached them about hosting an exhibition. Besides the space issue, Mrs. Fritsche also worried about the competitiveness of Washington’s embassy art scene.

“We will have to be a bit creative,” she said at the Buchel show, “in order to compete with other, bigger embassies.”

According to Mr. Marble, however, embassies “feel that they are all benefiting by drawing attention to what is going on in international culture in D.C. There is strength in numbers.”

• • •

Slovakian Cultural Counselor Igor Otcenas agrees that being a small embassy can be difficult.

“We are in a difficult position because we can’t compete with bigger embassies and we don’t have a separate cultural institute,” he says. “We try to spread the word about Slovakia beyond the borders of Washington.”

The embassy tries to hold some sort of exhibition every month, Mr. Otcenas says, and it has a film club that meets the last Thursday of each month.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) at 13th and H streets NW is one organization that works with Latin American and Caribbean embassies to present exhibitions and concerts.

“Sometimes embassies don’t have large budgets for cultural programs. We are trying to set standards for the presentation of Latin American culture in America,” says Felix Angel, curator of the IDB Cultural Center Art Gallery.

“There is no other institution representing Latin America on the Mall. For Americans, it’s very important to understand Latin America and the Caribbean.”

Currently, the IDB art gallery is showing an exhibition called “Tradition and Entrepreneurship: Popular Arts and Crafts from Peru,” which examines the preservation and promotion of traditional cultural values and the best ways to help people use folk art to foster sustainable development.

• • •

The Finnish Embassy’s Finlandia Hall, which received more than 18,000 visitors last year, is one of the few embassies that has purposely built such a large exhibition space.

“We don’t just happen to have this space; we have it at the center of the building because the arts are so important. It’s rare when this space is empty,” says Ms. Yrjo-Koskinen. She emphasizes the quality of the Finnish exhibitions, which are among the best-presented embassy shows in the city.

“It’s important that you don’t just nail a few things into the wall and invite people for a glass of wine,” she says. “One golden rule that we have is that we want to bring over the best possible quality productions. We don’t produce alone. We always team up with a Finnish museum or art institute to curate our events, and often, we are part of a tour.”

Last year, the embassy held four exhibitions, which made for “an unusually busy year,” Ms. Yrjo-Koskinen says. Besides their amazing space and high-quality exhibitions, creating publicity has been an important factor in the Embassy of Finland’s success.

“We don’t have one set guest list; we re-create our guest list for each exhibition in order to attract the broadest audience,” Ms. Yrjo-Koskinen says. “That way we get a buzz around our events, rather than just having diplomatic people or Finnish Americans. It makes it an active, alive scene.”

“Marimekko: Fabrics, Fashion, Architecture,” which is produced in collaboration with the Design Museum in Finland and the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture in New York, is currently on display at the Finnish Embassy. The Marimekko design house became well-known in America after Jacqueline Kennedy’s purchase of a few Marimekko dresses.

• • •

The Swedish Embassy is also placing increasingly greater importance on the arts, holding about four exhibitions a year in the embassy’s small lobby, says Peter Wahlqvist, the cultural counselor at the Embassy of Sweden, which currently occupies a suite in an office building on M Street NW.

Sweden is building a new embassy, set to open in 2006 on the Potomac River in Georgetown, which will have a dramatically larger space for events and exhibitions.

“It will be an arena to do a lot of things that we cannot do now,” Mr. Wahlqvist says. “We will have totally different possibilities to do bigger and greater things. Since we are on the ninth floor right now, it’s difficult for us to reach out to a new audience.”

On display at the embassy is an exhibition of photographs taken in Sweden, Japan and America called “Office,” by Lars Tunbjork.

“It’s a very funny exhibition because he is a very ironic person,” Mr. Wahlqvist says. “People in offices will look at them and have a good laugh.”

• • •

Embassies with their own cultural institutions attached — such as the German Embassy’s Goethe-Institut, the French Embassy’s Maison Francaise, The Italian Embassy’s Istituto Italiano, the Japanese Embassy’s Japan Information and Culture Center, and the Brazilian Embassy’s Brazilian-American Cultural Institute — tend to have stronger and more varied programs.

According to Jose Neistein, executive director of the Brazilian-American Cultural Institute, the institute has a new art show, a classical music concert, a popular music concert, and a few Brazilian films and lectures every month.

Norma Broadwater, of the cultural programs department at the Goethe-Institut, says the institute and the embassy have a sort of division of cultural programs: While the Goethe Institut tends to have the films and exhibits, the embassy tends to do more concerts and lectures.

Mr. Angel, of the IDB Cultural Center, is partial to a free-standing cultural effort.

“After being in D.C. for 20 years, I’ve realized that cultural promotion has more to do with the visiting ambassador than the policy of the country,” he says. “If embassies don’t have separate cultural institutes, then the cultural promotion is less stable.”

“Of course,” says Ms. Koskinen of the Finnish Embassy, “no one can compete with the Smithsonian.”

• • •

True. It’s also true that some events offer no more than an obscure history lecture, a chance to sip wine from a plastic cup or a look at shoddily hung photographs of a little-known ethnic group.

Yet in any other city, except perhaps New York, embassies would stand out as major outlets for the international arts. Here, their events are overlooked because they are mistakenly seen to be primarily for the diplomatic community; they don’t often receive much publicity in major publications; and many embassies of poorer and smaller countries have tiny budgets for their cultural sections, no specifically devoted cultural attache, and usually short runs for their exhibitions.

The moral of the story: Check the Web sites. Join the mailing lists. And be prepared for a new world of possibilities.

D.C.’s unique cultural feast:

Washington’s embassies stage an amazingly diverse program of exhibitions and events because they want to showcase the best of their arts, their designs, their music and their people — and most often they do it at little or no cost to patrons. Here’s a very small sampling, all of the events free unless otherwise noted.

Film

2900 Cathedral Avenue NW. 202/745-7900, www.swiss emb.org

• “Shepherds’ Journey into the Third Millennium” by Erich Langjahr, which won the 2003 Swiss Film Prize for best documentary. Part of the Environmental Film Festival. Reservations required. 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. March 24.

Embassy of Austria: 3524 International Court NW. 202/895-6776, www.austria.org

• “Sahara, The English Patient’s Desert.” Michael Schlamberger’s 2002 documentary follows the trail of the real-life “English Patient.” Part of the Environmental Film Festival. 8 p.m. March 23.

Alliance Francaise: 2142 Wyoming Ave NW. 202/234-7911, www.francedc.org

• “La Zizanie.” A film by Claude Zidi, in French without subtitles. 7 p.m. March 29. Wine and cheese reception 6:30 p.m. Reservations with prepayment required. $10; cine-club members $8.

La Maison Francaise: 4101 Reservoir Road NW. 202/448-6356, www.la-maison-francaise.org

• “La Grande Seduction, Quebec-Canada.” A little Quebec harbor village, hit by vanishing fish stocks and economic decline, rallies to save itself. Discussion with the director and a cocktail reception follow. 7:30 p.m. April 1.

Embassy of Hungary: 2950 Spring of Freedom St. NW. 202/362-6730, www.hungary emb.org

• “Passport to Life: the Rescue of Budapest Jews.” A film by Agnes M. Vertes about the rescue of tens of thousands of Budapest Jews during the Holocaust. Panel discussion follows. 7 p.m. March 31.

Brazilian-American Cultural Institute: 4719 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202/362-8334, www.bacidc .org

• “Bellini and the Sphinx.” Based on the novel by Tony Bellotto. In Portuguese with English subtitles. An apparently simple case of adultery turns into an intricate plot. 7 p.m. March 31. $3; BACI members $2.

Lectures

Brazilian-American Cultural Institute: 4719 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202/362-8334, www.bacidc .org

• “The Amazon and the Atlantic Rainforest.” Talk on Brazil’s conservation challenges by Connie Campbell of the U.S. Agency for International Development, who has lived and worked in the Brazilian Amazon for many years. 7 p.m. March 18.

Alliance Francaise: 2142 Wyoming Ave NW. 202/234-7911, www.francedc.org

• Lecture and discussion with poet H.J. Perdrix. $3. Members free. 7 p.m. March 31.

The Catholic University of America School of Architecture and Planning: Koubek Auditorium, Crough Hall, 620 Michigan Ave. NE. 202/319-5188, architecture.cua.edu.

• Lecture by Heinrich Degelo of Morger & Degelo on contemporary architecture in Switzerland. 6:30 p.m. March 31.

Embassy of Austria: 3524 International Court NW. 202/895-6776, www.austria.org

• “The American- ization/Westernization of Austria.” Book presentation by Guenter Bischof, whose new book explores the U.S. presence in Austria from the decade after World War II until today. 7 p.m. April 5.

Art

Consulate of El Salvador Art Gallery: 1724 20th St. NW. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday.

• “Planalto: Abstract Oil Paintings by Lara Oliveira.” A visual search for a balance between ideological extremes, particularly present in Brazilian contemporary society. Through March 28. Call the Latin American Cultural Space at 202/667 6674, or see www.laraoliveira.com

Goethe-Institut: 812 Seventh St. NW. 202/289-1200, www.goethe.de/washington

• “Wim Wenders: Photos.” Wenders captures the vast emptiness of the Australian outback. March 18-May 14.

Embassy of Australia: 1601 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202/797-3383, www.austemb .org

• “John Gould and the Birds of Australia.” This exhibition on the 19th-century English ornithologist features his Australian bird specimens and illustrations from first editions of his monographs. Gallery 1601, through April 14. By appointment only.

Embassy of Finland: 3301 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202/298-5886, www.finland.org

• “Marimekko: Fabrics, Fashion and Architecture.” Celebrating the acclaimed design company’s history from its early years through today. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. daily through May 16.

Embassy of Austria: 3524 International Court NW. 202/895-6776, www.austria.org

• “Yan Suryana: Distilling the Essence of Bali.” Indonesian painter Yan Suryana was deeply influenced by the two years he lived in Austria. Through April 10.

Embassy of Sweden: 1501 M St. NW. 202/467-2600, www.swedenabroad.se

• “Office: Photographs by Lars Tunbjork.” 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. weekdays through April 29.

Japan Information and Culture Center: Lafayette Centre III, mall level, 1155 21 St. NW. 202/238-6901, www.us.emb-japan.go.jp

• “Discover Japan Through Contemporary Posters.” Thirty prints by some of today’s most talented Japanese graphic artists. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday through April 30.

Inter-American Development Bank Cultural Center Art Gallery: 1300 New York Ave. NW. 202/623-3929, www.iadb.org/cultural

• “Tradition and Entrepreneurship: Popular Arts and Crafts from Peru.” 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday through April 30.

Embassy of Canada: 501 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202/488-6255, www.canadian embassy.org

• “Beauty in Service to Science: The Panoramas of Charles D. Walcott.” The photographs of the Canadian Rockies taken by Charles D. Walcott, a geologist and the fourth secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. In the Art Gallery. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday through May 28.

Concerts

Embassy of Germany: 4645 Reservoir Road NW. 202/298-4000, www.germany-info.org

• The Fairfax Winds, under William Hudson, perform Mozart and Beethoven. Special appearance by Maria Dickson, winner of the 2003 Beethoven Piano Competition, followed by a reception. 7:30 p.m. March 29. Reservations required. Call the Beethoven Society of America, 703/960-9875.

Embassy of Malaysia: 3516 International Court NW. 202/328-2700.

• Dennis Lee and Chee-Hung Toh, duo-pianists, play Beethoven, Schubert, Bizet and others. 8 p.m. April 2 and 3. Embassy Series concert. $35. Call 202/625-2361 for tickets.

Embassy of Austria: 3524 International Court NW. 202/895-6776, www.austria.org

• An evening with renowned young Austrian pianist Till Fellner. 8 p.m. April 23. Embassy Series concert. $35.

Residence of Tunisian Ambassador Hatem Atallah: 5131 Broad Branch Road NW• An evening of Tunisian music with Tunisian guitarist Fawzi Chekili, followed by dinner. 8 p.m. June 5. Limited seating. Embassy Series concert. $125.

Language

Many embassies and cultural institutes offer language classes, including those in French (Alliance Francaise, 2142 Wyoming Ave. NW, 202/234-7911), Portuguese (Brazilian-American Cultural Institute, 4719 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202/362-8334), Korean (Korean Cultural Service, 2370 Massachusetts Ave. NW, 202/797-6343), German (Goethe-Institut: 812 Seventh St. NW, 202/289-1200), Hungarian (Kossuth House, 2001 Massachusetts Ave. NW, 202/328-2630), Russian (Russian Cultural Centre, 1825 Phelps Place NW. 202/265-3840), Italian (Istituto Italiano di Cultura, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 610, 202/223-9800).

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