The performing arts foster cultural exchange, but as war escalates, intensified security checks and higher fees for visa processing affect every venue presenting international artists. Lincoln Center, Dance Theater Workshop, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and World Music Institute have experienced the delays, expense, and apparent arbitrariness of visa policies.
The Peking Opera Company of Jilin was scheduled to perform at Symphony Space April 10 and 11, but the 40-member troupe was denied visas. “We were told the American consulate in China did not believe the 40 performers would return,” says Don Hughes, co-producer of the troupe’s 22-performance tour. “That’s nonsense. If they had said ‘due to imminent attack of the United States on Iraq,’ I would have accepted that. I’ve been bringing groups from China since 1986, from Russia since 1987. Last year we got visas from the same consulate office, and all the artists went home.” The visa denial caused Hughes’s first tour cancellation in 27 years.
The March 1 restructuring of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, renamed the Bureau for Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS), made it part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Immigration lawyer Jonathan Ginsburg, based in Virginia, works with presenters, management companies, and individual artists. “No one knows who in DHS will exercise visa authority,” he says. “They are involved now in figuring this out, and you get wackos like Congressman James Sensenbrenner, who assumes immigration should be kept with the police department.”
Visa processing begins with presenters’ petitioning BCIS. Then foreign performers visit an American consulate abroad. They’re checked again at the airport, where artists can be denied entry by Border Patrol. “What are they revved up to stop?” asks Mary Reilly, director of artist services at BAM. “So an actor has ragged hair, a piece of luggage that looks like it’s traveled the world, is tired because they just did a show. We’re going to have to have etiquette coaching for performers at airports. These are the artists, ambassadors of goodwill, peacemakers. They bring so much to New York. It’s a financial win for the city: buses, hotel, the local economy. We all suffer when peacemakers are punished and feared wrongly.”
Ginsburg notes a fundamental shift in America’s attitude toward immigration, what he calls “an increasing atmosphere change at consulates. They no longer look at immigration as something positive. The Homeland Security Act says they can review anything they want, that immigration is not necessarily good. It’s about security—a police function. You get different results if you look at it that way.”
DTW’s “World Wide Works” festival opens April 3, with performers from Australia, China, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Italy, Japan, Bulgaria, and France. Cathy Edwards, director of DTW’s Inter/National Programs, says, “One could have predicted after 9-11 that visa processing was going to get harder.” A month ago, visas for the first company in the festival, Déjà Donné, had not arrived. “Last summer the system became so logjammed that the only way to get your petition looked at was by paying the premium processing fee,” she says.
Known as PPF, the $1,000 fee charged by the BCIS expedites a petition’s review. Explains Ginsburg: “High-tech industry wanted to get visas for professional workers approved more quickly. High tech said, ‘Great—what do we care?—we can pay $1,000 and we get our workers in two weeks.’ The INS started PPF because Congress had not, for years, appropriated sufficient funds to allow it to accomplish its mission, so there were lengthy backlogs. If you wanted to pay $1,000 and get a result in 15 days, you could. Then INS could take that money and improve its infrastructure. Post-9-11, the INS had to engage in additional security checks. Now, under BCIS, the California Service Center has a standard turnaround time of 180 days. But regulations say you can’t file more than six months in advance. How do you square that with BCIS claiming the PPF is voluntary? I say, bullshit! What aspect of this is voluntary?”
In February, Edwards refiled Déjà Donné’s petition, paying the unbudgeted-for PPF. Their visas arrived two weeks ago.
“In general we are talking $1,000 for the performer’s petition, plus $1,000 for the technical staff petition, plus a $130 per-application fee each. That’s $2,260. Plus, the AGMA and IATSE unions now charge $250 per letter of support. That’s $2,760,” says Edwards. “You either have a huge budget that can accommodate that kind of extra money, or you’re doing less international work, or you’re more motivated to collaborate with partners.”
From April 10 to 13, the Australia-based Lucy Guerin Company performs at DTW as part of a five-presenter partnership. “Knowing how expensive and cumbersome the visa process is, we feel more comfortable when we are not the only presenter. You can split the cost and the administrative burden with your peers,” explains Edwards. “I just got my invoice for $750, which is still $750 more than it would have been a year ago!”
In a field built on bare-minimum budgets, such expenditures are debilitating. How did PPF slip through? “Bill Yates [formerly of the INS, now acting associate director for operations at BCIS] said, ‘We talked to the arts,’ ” says Ginsburg. “I asked who. He said ‘Warner Bros.’ I have every respect in the world for Bill but for INS to think they talked to someone in the arts, and it was Warner Bros.—that’s not the arts, that’s Hollywood.”
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.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 8, 2003