Selecting American art to be displayed in US embassies around the world involves a unique level of connoisseurship. Such a project helps to build local goodwill. And it tells a constant stream of foreign visitors, as well as the diplomatic corps, a great deal about the creative achievements of US artists and the life and culture they represent.
Choosing art from a broad spectrum of American artists is Jane Thompson's job as director of the Art in Embassies Program of the Department of State.
Mrs. Thompson borrows artworks in all media, styles, and periods from museums , corporate and private collections, commercial galleries, and from individual artists themselves. She now has an inventory of about 1,500 works in what she terms her ''repository'' in Washington, as well as some 3,000 works now on display in 110 US ambassadors' residences abroad.
Some of the works are by emerging artists who are just beginning to build their reputations. Others are by contemporary masters like Georgia O'Keeffe, Grace Hartigan, Frank Stella, Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Rauschenberg, and Helen Frankenthaler, among many others. Certain of the major works that the director selects go directly abroad from galleries or museums or artists, and are returned to them, with the State Department paying all packing, shipping, and insurance charges.
Although the program spans the history of American art (even a few John Singleton Copley paintings are now out in embassies, on loan from museums), Mrs. Thompson feels strongly that the spirit of the project mandates that a majority of the works be by contemporary living artists.
This program, she explains, is one of cooperation between private interests and government. The artworks are lent for a minimum of two years. One-year renewals are requested to keep works in place until the end of an ambassador's tenure at post. The art is changed between appointments, giving each new ambassador, when budget allows, the opportunity to choose his or her own artworks.
''The ambassadors need to feel pride in the works that they will live with for several years, and to have a sense of rapport with them,'' the director explains. ''I often even encourage them to choose things by people from their own states or regions, to help give exposure to a wide variety of artists from all parts of the country. I work directly with the ambassador and his wife. We go over their house plans together, analyze where the best light will be, and determine where different clusters of art should go. Then we put together a collection that suits their tastes. Some ambassadors are quite daring and adventurous in their preferences, others quite conservative.''
Most ambassadors, since they can't personally explain every work of art to every visitor, choose to have brochures printed which help present the collection. These include a photograph of each piece, a brief biographical sketch of each artist (in English as well as the local language), and accreditation to the lender of each work. Instructions for getting out the brochure, as well as instructions on how to hang the art, take care of it, and return it, are part of the kit sent out with each collection of art.
Mrs. Thompson has now been on both sides of the embassy fence. She is the widow of Llewellyn Thompson, who was twice US ambassador to the Soviet Union, once ambassador to Austria, and, before that, minister counselor to Rome. She spent 15 years living abroad in official residences and knows, from experience, how the right artwork can enhance their decoration and livability and transcend language barriers with their aesthetic message. She knows that a good art collection can open up new avenues of contact with the people of a country and attract local art groups for tours.
Her purpose, in the 10 years she has been director of the program, has been to upgrade the quality of the works that are chosen and sent abroad, for she knows the profound influence they can have.
The Art in Embassies program was set up within the State Department in 1963, with Nancy Kefauver, widow of Estes Kefauver, as its first director. 'We are very cost-effective in this government,'' Mrs. Thompson says. ''Since August of last year we have brought in new works, on loan, that are worth at least $13 million.''