Exchange Matters / May 18, 2021

A Look into Cultural Exchange in the World of Museums

By Caroline Mariz, Program Officer, International Arts & Artists

International Arts and Artists (IA&A) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing cross-cultural understanding and exposure to the arts through global exchanges. IA&A facilitates these exchanges through the Traveling Exhibitions Services, which develops and circulates visual arts exhibitions, and the Cultural Exchange Programs, which provides J-1 visa services for international students, artists, and professionals from more than 80 countries.  

IA&A is committed to continuing to support the next generation of creative leaders through educational and cultural exchanges. By working specifically with art institutions, cultural organizations, and more than 15 museums, IA&A has brought in more than 35 researchers, administrators, curators, fellows, and scholars to participate in art-related programs across the United States.  

The work being done by the exchange visitors in their programs is nothing short of fascinating, and they are able to participate in all aspects of museum life, ranging from curatorial to restorative to administrative. An art history intern at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston shared how she was able to “assist with installations of new purchases and their labels, assist with provenance research and formatting, and attend trustee subcommittee meetings,” during her exchange program. She noted that by the end of her program, she had gained experience in “conceiving and organizing small rotations, the building blocks to large exhibitions, the Museum System, a program many museums use to organize their collections, and collection stewardship.” 

Despite COVID-19 restrictions, IA&A has been excited to see the numerous ways in which museums have transitioned core programming to online platforms. An art conservation research scholar at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, VA, shared how he was able to continue his directives by working remotely. He credited his exchange program for giving him “the opportunity to hone his use of retouching materials used in painting and conservation by undertaking color studies,” and said that he “also continued practicing his hand and visual skills by making small painting studies.” These transitions, while difficult, created many opportunities for the exchange visitors to continue their programs in the United States or from their home countries while they waited out travel restrictions.  

Exchange visitors participate in a wide range of cultural activities during their U.S. stays, depending on which part of the country they are in, as this is a key component to the international exchange. From swing dancing in Texas to Creole cooking classes and swamp tours in Louisiana, the importance of cultural activities outside of their programs cannot be overstated. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, IA&A, which is located in the heart of Washington, DC, organized several “Museum Mornings” for exchange visitors in the area to meet each other and explore local museums together. This served as a fantastic opportunity for IA&A staff to meet with exchange visitors, share ideas, and learn about their experiences. We look forward to resuming these activities as it becomes safe to do so. While it is no secret that this industry was hit hard by the pandemic, we are optimistically looking forward as travel restrictions are lifted and we can welcome exchange visitors to our communities once again.  

While the nature of cultural exchange programs is temporary — international visitors come to the United States for a finite exchange program — the impact continues long after participants return to their home countries and can implement their newly learned skills. We have seen many success stories from exchange visitors who worked in U.S. museums and returned to their home countries with invaluable knowledge. “This was such a positive experience for both the exchange visitor and the team at the museum,” said the supervisor of a research scholar at The Guggenheim in New York City. “We could not ask for a better collaboration, given the constraints of the pandemic.”  It is these aspects of relationship-building and knowledge exchange that help broaden global connections overseas, while giving domestic museums the opportunity to learn from their international team-members.