Preventing Performances

The New Bureau for Citizenship and Immigration Services—Once the INS—Impedes International Cultural Exchange

BAM's Reilly has watched the process evolve since 1988: "Then, a production of Robert Wilson's The Forest cost $50 for the entire petition whether it was 10 artists or 100." Soon after, the INS instituted a $10 per artist fee, rising to $50 in 1992. "We were outraged," Reilly recalls. "We thought we were going to go broke. Then came the $110 application fee." Reilly thinks that because the INS was not on most politicians' radar, its fees and regulations changed without explanation. "Everyone in the arts is so busy, but there has to be some advocacy. Who's paying attention for us?"

PPFs have been a new burden, financially, for BAM. Last year's "Next Wave Festival" invited artists from England, France, Germany, Japan, Argentina, and Denmark. "Typically, 11 engagements require non-immigrant work visas," says Reilly. "In 1988, 12 visa petitions might have cost $600. Now those same 12 presentations could run as high as $29,304! What kind of inflation is that in 14 years, from $600 to $30,000 per festival? Only the big fish will survive in our industry, and with great difficulty at that."

The war impacts our cultural landscape in other ways: Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour is refusing to work in the United States, canceling a 38-city trip, his largest North American tour, scheduled from March 26 to May 15: "It is my strong conviction that the responsibility for disarming Iraq should rest with the United Nations," N'Dour declared. "I believe that coming to America at this time would be perceived in many parts of the world—rightly or wrongly—as support for this policy."

World Music Institute, which presents international music and dance, has recently seen nine groups "denied visas, cancel because of political reasons, or get their visas too late to perform," says Isabel Soffer, associate director.

According to Soffer, "There are many ways to interpret N'Dour's action. The outcome, though, is what is most scary: the loss of cultural exchange. It is being slowly dismantled without public discussion and, right now, without opposition from senators and Congress members. It seems the arts world is in a state of shock. Forget about our New York senators. They're useless on these issues. Traditionally we got support from Moynihan, but our current senators have not shown any interest in this cultural crisis."

If the "crisis" continues beyond immediate cancellations, audiences will see fewer international premieres. "The visa application process requires reviews and press about a company's performance. If a show isn't done, how do I provide that?" asks Reilly. "And if anyone is working with certain nationals—from Cuba or Africa—it impacts the work. I e-mail my lawyer all the time. Fundraising is hard enough these days without adding money to be raised for application fees. No disrespect intended to Homeland Security—but come on!"

Requiring partners in order to finance risky international work compromises DTW's mission. "DTW is absolutely not afraid to go it alone when it comes to championing a new artist," says Edwards. "But everybody has taken a harder look at presenting work from countries that feature prominently on the State Department watch list, because it is virtually impossible to get visas, especially for male performers aged 15 to 45. It'd be foolish for someone not to think seriously before taking on a project like that—all the money you are pouring into the marketing and production, and then that project not coming to fruition. And it has nothing to do with the artist or the presenter, but with the State Department."

On March 20, after the bombing started, a number of consulates became vulnerable to sudden and unannounced closures, complicating the process of obtaining visas.

This year's Lincoln Center Festival, opening July 8, has booked Israel's Batsheva Dance Company and Daedong Gut, a Korean shaman ritual, which includes a performer born in North Korea. "Kim Keum-hwa. She's 72. We've got a fair number coming from Korea and I don't know which ones were born where," says festival director Nigel Redden. He's not sure if he'll have to travel to the State Department, as he did last summer "to plead the case" for the Iranian artists in Ta'ziyeh, a Persian theatrical epic. "The law is, the individual consular officer has the absolute right to turn down an application. The president of the United States cannot reverse the determination of the consular officer. The superior of the consular officer can say, 'Why don't you look at this again?' but it was very painful when nine of the Iranians couldn't come. The performances would have been better. It's essential that we know something about the people in countries with which our government has an antagonistic relationship. One of the best ways of finding out about a people is through their culture, especially if you don't speak the language. I don't know if [by summer] France or Germany will be on the watch list. Frankly, we'll be able to bring in Bulgarian artists and people from Spain and Britain."


"Arts & Minds: A Conference on Cultural Diplomacy Amid Global Tensions" will be held at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, April 14 and 15. For further information, visit artsinternational.org/upcoming_events/artsMinds/artsMinds.html.

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