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Maria Pekala. Foto: Katrīna Ģelze

Diplomacy Through Art. An interview with Maria Pekala 43

Elīna Zuzāne

Photo: Katrīna Ģelze

Fifty years ago President John F. Kennedy formalized an Art in Embassies programme, which ever since then has found ways to facilitate exhibitions of American art around the world – mainly by displaying artworks in the U.S. Department’s diplomatic facilities throughout the world (including Embassies andAmbassadors’ residences). The programme was first envisioned by the Museum of Modern Artin 1953 and ever since then it has played a leading role in U.S. public diplomacy.

Today, it is a public-private partnership engaging over 20,000 participants globally, including artists, museums, galleries, universities, and private collectors, and encompasses over 200 venues in 189 countries.  Professional curators and registrars create and ship about 60 exhibitions per year, and since 2003, over 58 permanent collections have been installed in the Department’s facilities throughout the world. visited the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Latvia to get acquainted with the Art in Embassies programme and the collection of artworks, which for the next three years will inhabit the home of Mr and Mrs Pekala. in residence of the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Latvia

Could you tell us more about the Art in Embassies (AIE) programme? What has been your involvement in it?

It is a programme that the US government created about 50 years ago. It’s a way to show the United States to other countries. It is a collection of art that is available to the Department of State, which comes from museums, private owners and foundations. The selected artworks are then sent tothe Embassy buildings and to the residences of the Ambassadors. It’s actually one of the nicest things about being in this position – you arrive in a foreign place and you get to choose, which artworks will go in your residence.

How did you choose which artworks to exhibit? Did you work with curators?

Yes, we had curators at the Department of State, who helped us understand what we can get based on our own interests. Different people approach it differently, but we wanted to use the Art in Embassies programme to show a little bit of the diversity of the United States. We worked with a curator, who made us realise that we should think about this exposition in terms of the origin of the artists as well as the way they see life around them – the way they depict United States and the life in it.

We have artists like Max Ferguson, who is from New York City.His work is very autobiographical and it really shows his perspective of the city. We also haveReginald Marsh, who has captured the life of an urban centre.But at the same time we have other artists, like Phil Epp, who paints the prairie. Two very important African American artists are also present in this exposition and they give an insightinto the life in this particular community. And then, of course, we haveEdward Curtis’ photographs.

It was really about figuring out what do we want to do with this programme. It wasan opportunity.We had the Department of State behind us that could go to the museums, to private individuals and arrange with them to lend us these great works of art. So we just had to really think about what do we want to do with it? What do we like? What can we live with? It’s also your house so you have to be able to live with it. 

Maruta Racenis, Evening Sky, Oil on canvas, Courtesy of the artist, Richmond, Virginia

Maruta Racenis, Orange Landscape, Oil on canvas, Courtesy of the artist, Richmond, Virginia

Max Ferguson, Barbershop lll, 2003, Graphite on paper, Courtesy of the artist, New York, New York

Max Ferguson, Spring Street, 1985, Etching on paper, Courtesy of the artist, New York, New York, and Gallery Henoch, New York, New York

Edward Curtis, Sioux Chiefs, c.1905, Contemporary digital photograph of a platinum print, Courtesy of ART in EMBASSIES, Washington, DC Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., Edward S. Curtis Collection; LC-USZC4-8920cph 3g12466 

And how did you choose these particular works?

Primarily I think that it was the theme. But we did have to look through this huge catalogue that includeda variety of works of art. We went through it and it was really like a visceral reaction. Of course, we wanted to have something that related to Mark Rothko, because he is such an important artist and he comes from Latvia, but as we couldn’t get any of his works, we thought that we should include something similar. So by working with a curator we chose Robert Motherwell and Phil Epp, who we have exhibited on the stairs. Phil Eppis a contemporary artist. If you looked at his paintings you would think they have nothing to do with Mark Rothko, but hisinspiration comes fromRothko’s colour blocks. He paints Kansas and Nebraska, which is where he is from, but you can notice the influence.

In general, you just have to really like the art. You have to see it and think: “Yes, I could look at that everyday.”

Artworks can never be truly grasped from a digital file or a printed page. How difficult was it to choose art from a catalogue?

I remember when we received the works[the Head of the Latvian Decorative Arts and Design Department of The Latvian National Museum of Art]IneseBaranovskawas hereand she was unwrapping a huge painting. We didn’t even know, which one it was. We were all very surprised. It was very interesting. I didn’t think we had chosen anything that big. (Laughs) We had so much stuff that I didn’t know, where everythingwould all go. But when we put them up on the wall, I absolutely loved it.

Do you have any works by Latvian artists?

We have Maruta Rācenis, who is Latvian-American. She was born in Riga, but lives in the United States. It is so interesting, because when we unwrapped her pieces and put them up on the wall, theylooked exactly like Jūrmala. It really reminds me of the beach here.

Do you have any favourites?

It’s very hard to tell. I love the Motherwell. I think it’s beautiful. I also really like Reginald Marsh. I think it does depend on your mood. I used to live in the New York City so I love the one with Max Fergusonin the subway. To me that’s New York; that’s what I remember being a student in New York. It’s gritty, it’s noisy and there are all these people, but I love it – it’s New York.

Were you involved with the art scene in New York?

I was a poor student. (Laughs) It was in the late 1980s, but back then New York had so much going on in terms of music, exhibitions and art that was maybe a little bit off the beaten path. I remember that as a student you could get great tickets for the opera. It was fantastic.

Regarding art I’m not an expert; I’m not a connoisseur. I like it. I go to shows. I like to know what’s happening and I like when people tell me, which exhibitions to go and see, but I’m not the first one to know about them. (Laughs)

Cynthia Innis, Trigger, 2008, Mixed media on satin

Yvette Molina, Pine Sap Lure, 2008, Oil on aluminum

Ilze Aviks, Book Of Hours: Perfectionism, 2005, Pigment and dyes on linen / cotton fabric, cotton thread; painting, resist, discharge, hand stitching

Andris Eglitis, On the Way I, 2008, Oil on canvas

Daiga Kruze, The Real McCoy, 2008, Mixed media on canvas

Lucas Reiner, On La Brea Avenue #4, 2007, Oil on canvas

Have you been attending exhibitions here in Latvia?

A little bit. Not as much as I would like to. We only got here eight months ago so I hope to do a lot more of that. I also hope to get to know a lot more of the artists. We had a lunch here with some of the artists, who are exhibiting in the Embassy and that was very exciting for me. I really admire people, who can do this. My sister-in-law is also one of the artists, whose work is shown here. That’s how I know that being an artist is not easy. For a long time you work under the radar and you really put a lot of your soul in these things. I really admire people, who can do it. I don’t think I’m particularly creative. (Laughs)

If you now decided to change the exposition, could you do that?

It’s quite hard. Usually you come in, you choose the pieces and you have them for the rest of the time you are here. We will be here for three years and that’s how long they will stay here. They will be here until we leave. When the next Ambassador will come, they will choose the things that they like.

Could you tell me a little bit about permanent collection of the United States Embassy in Riga?

The permanent collection was placed in the Embassy in 2011. That collection was also put together through Art in Embassies programme. It’s all connected, but there is a different curator associated with the Embassy artwork. The work in the Embassy is a long-term collection and a permanent collection, curated for that space specifically. We have Latvian artists, Latvian-American artists and American artists. So it’s rather unique and I think it’s a great collection. We are very glad that we have VijaCelmins prints. We get a lot of positive comments on it.

Zane Berzina, Touch Me (Mural Painting), 2010 - 2011, Thermochromic pigments, binder; Site specific interactive wall painting that responds to touch

Did you also commission art for the Embassy space and for its collection?

In this case we did. As we are built in a birch grove, we commissioned a sculpture of the birch grove and sap collection jars [by MāraSkujeniece]. It drives the eye from the birch grove in the sculpture to the nature outside. It’s something that we are happy to see every day. The collection of birch sap is also something very unique to Latvia, so we always tell our American visitors about that.

How does it fit into the overall collection of the US embassies? Do you have someone working specifically for this region?

There is a curator based in Washington, who does the research. She probably spends years prior to new Embassy being built doing the research, finding out, who the best artists are, connecting with museums and so forth.

Gundega Strautmane, Untitled works from Braille series, Pins, thread

How open is the collection to the public?

It is generally open to the public in a sense that people have called us and asked us, if they can come in and see the art. We always say yes, but we just need to schedule the time so that we can show it to them. We are very proud of it so any chance we get to show it, we take.

And regarding the collection here in the residence – how accessible is it to the public? Do you host open days?

We haven’t done that, but we have receptions quite regularly. We have had groups of Latvian students here as well. The artworks here are meant to make the space beautiful, but it’s also meant to create an opportunity for people to talk, meet and discuss.For us residencies are private, but part of the reason to have an official residence is to invite people in – to have meetings, to have social occasions, and we try to do a lot of that. We have art, so that it’s doesn’t become too much of a private space. Art is meant to be seen, and the whole reason, why we have this Art in Embassies programme, is so that we can present the United States to other countries. We try to make it as open as possible.

Do you also have a private art collection?

Yes, we do. Everywhere we have gone, everywhere we have lived, we have collected a little bit of the local art. In our home in Washington we do have things that remind us of the places we have lived in and the people that we have met.

Do you have any works by Latvian artists?

Not yet. But we just got here. (Laughs)

Philippe Halsman, Digital prints, Copyright Halsman Archive

Mara Skujeniece, Betula, 2010-2011, Ceramic, wood

Pat Badt, 18 Blue Sounds, Oil on panel, accompanied by sound tracks by Scott Sherk

Vineta Kaulaca, My Eye Travels, Oil on canvas (Installation of 10-15 small paintings)