Uruguay Foundation Becoming Model for Arts Development Programs

The Washington Diplomat
November 29th, 2004


by Heather Nalbone

There’s never a shortage of activity among Washington’s foreign embassies and cultural institutions.
Recently, for example, locals could choose from botanical art at the Embassy of Japan, photography at
the Brazilian-American Cultural Institute, a string quartet at the Embassy of Austria, as well as dozens of other performances and presentations.

Then there’s Uruguay...

Just a short walking distance from the bustle of Embassy Row is another smaller cultural venue that is
rapidly gaining status comparable to that of Washington’s larger embassies and cultural establishments.
The Uruguay Cultural Foundation for the Arts is nestled in a somewhat unlikely location, sharing a
downtown block with David’s Hair Salon and Pro Photo Repairs and Sales Shop. But three years after
its introduction, the establishment is drawing a crowd that seems to grow with each of its monthly
exhibits.

In the words of exhibition coordinator Florencia Sader, a main part of the foundation’s mission is to
“develop artistic and cultural programs that benefit the community of Washington.” Although the goal is
not all that different from other cross-cultural programs, the range and quality of artwork springing from
this tiny country is in some ways a marvel.

“Uruguay has more painters per square foot than any other country in the world,” Ambassador Hugo
Fernández Faingold said of the nation’s roughly 3 million residents.

A recent exhibit at the foundation’s Salón de las Artes is representative of just how varied the country’s
art is. From Roberto Piriz’s wood objects to Gustavo Serra’s oil paintings and Daniel Batalla’s
contemporary canvases, the range of skill is broad. Diego Donner’s plaster and paint carvings featured
in a collaborative exhibit at the World Bank remind one of ancient cave drawings.

“Some other countries have sports or music,” the ambassador told a recent group of visitors. “Uruguay
has art.”

In addition to occasional film screenings and educational sessions, the foundation organizes monthly
presentations that highlight works by two or three artists. This month’s exhibit will be the organization’s
14th since it became an official nonprofit entity in late 2001.

Without the ample cash flow of neighboring Brazil and other large countries, exposing Americans to
Uruguayan culture has posed a challenge to the embassy for years. The manpower and gallery halls
needed to run regular exhibits can be costly, especially for small nations with limited resources.

The foundation was the embassy’s low-budget answer to those barriers. As employees of an
independent nonprofit organization, Sader and her colleagues can collect corporate sponsorship and
sales commission, as well as membership fees gathered in exchange for discounts on artwork
purchases and other activities.

A handful of volunteers help with daily duties and Web site maintenance. Marketing techniques involve
long mailing lists and small billboard-like signs to catch the attention of passersby, as well as free
Uruguayan wine and hors d’oeuvres served at every opening.

The approach has attracted a diverse group of Washington residents, among them 24-year-old Jared
Miller and six of his friends. What Miller had to say about the foundation and its staff echoed the
sentiments of several other visitors. “I’m interested in art from a pedestrian standpoint,” Miller said.
“That’s why I come here. It’s accommodating, and there are people here to explain the art.”

Officially, the foundation is independent of the embassy. In practice, the two are intertwined. The
886-sq.-ft. Salón de las Artes is housed in the same building as the embassy itself, in a rectangular
room below the busy diplomatic offices. The embassy’s cultural counselor joins foundation employees
and volunteers regularly to brainstorm ideas, and they often work together when introducing the artists
to curators in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. Artists are selected for membership and exhibitions
with help from the foundation’s curator in Uruguay, and the ambassador provides room and board when
they travel to Washington to discuss their works.

The system has worked so well, according to those in charge, that attachés around town are starting to
catch on. The organization has received informational inquiries from the embassies of Israel,
Azerbaijan, Portugal and other Latin American countries interested in developing similar models.

Employees and volunteers speak proudly of their accomplishments, including plans to introduce
chapters in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York and San Juan. “I would stay here to
work through the night if I could,” said Viviana Diaz, a full-time volunteer. “This job is so interesting.”

But employees aren’t the only ones who speak with enthusiasm. Although some guests admit to visiting
primarily for the free wine, others speak of the gallery as though it were a hidden cache. World Bank
treasurer and art lover Norsiah Sumardi discovered the foundation during her walk home from work one
evening, when she noticed an exhibit opening sign placed in front of the entrance. She ended up
purchasing several pieces and has rarely missed an exhibit since.

“[The foundation] seems to have a good eye,” Sumardi said during a recent exhibit. “To be successful
you need to have a good eye for art. But then,” she added, “Uruguay has such great art.”

The Uruguay Cultural Foundation for the Arts is located at 1913 I St., NW.
For more information, please call (202) 331-1313

Heather Nalbone is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, MD.


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