Impediments to Art Exchange

Scientists have grabbed the headlines, but some artists and art students may have visa woes of their own.
April 5, 2006

With all the talk about brain drain in science and technology fields, and about how real and perceived problems in the U.S. visa process are deterring some of the world's best and brightest scholars and students from coming to America, artists and art students have been largely below the radar.

But at a hearing of the House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform Tuesday, lawmakers and art enthusiasts alike said that artists are being affected, too, at a time when cultural exchange through art is more necessary now than ever in a quickly globalizing world.

“In the long run, our security is enhanced, not diminished, by this kind of exchange,” said Rep. Henry A Waxman (D-Calif.).

Tony Edson, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for visa services, said that scientists and science students still face potentially more delays, because they are often from countries that prompt thorough background checks, and may work with potentially hazardous materials or sensitive information.

But all students have faced increased visa delays since 9/11. Meanwhile, European and Australian institutions have ratcheted up recruitment of Asian students. In January, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice assured more than 100 college presidents that the visa situation was much improved. She noted that, despite legitimate security concerns, “we are now moving 97 percent of our visas in just one or two days.”

At the Tuesday hearing, Edson referred to the 97 percent, but put it in more context. “Once [candidates] are interviewed,” he said, “97 percent who are eligible for visas get them within one or two days.” The trouble is, he added, that nearly all applicants must show up in person to give biometric data or do an interview, and demand for visas in India and China has outpaced staff growth at consulates there. All applicants suffer as a result. Several people at the hearing singled out Chennai in India, where they said the wait for an interview routinely reaches 160 days.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) did not raise the kind of competitiveness flags that have been ubiquitous to similar hearings on science and technology issues lately, but he did say that arts students “enrich our experience” and are a “boon to the economy.”

Edson said that he understands, and that “the importance of higher ed has never had a higher profile in the [State Department]. We have added training on higher ed to the basic consular training.”  

Experts said that they have seen marked improvement in the way consulates handle non-science students. Angela Ashley, a spokeswoman for the Savannah College of Art and Design, which has more than 600 international students, said that the number of foreign students did fall after 9/11, but that it has bounced back.

The famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma was on hand to testify at Tuesday's House hearing, and stressed to the committee that exchange for visiting artists and art scholars is often time specific, so visa delays are a major hurdle.

Ma is the founder of the Silk Road Project, which brings together musicians from all over the Silk Road region, an ancient trade route between China and the Mediterranean Sea, to perform. “The barriers to bringing these musicians, these cultural guides, to the U.S. have become extraordinarily high,” he said, because of “high financial costs, uncertain timelines, and countless logistical hurdles.” Ma was one of several witnesses who emphasized the need for an expedited visa process for frequent visitors.

He recounted a story of two Iranian musicians who had been part of the Silk Road Project since 2000, and, though they had visited the U.S. almost 10 times, with no embassy in Iran, the two had to fly to Dubai for an interview, and then again to get their visas. In 2005, the printer happened to be down when they came to get their visas, so the ordeal required a third flight.

Sandra L. Gibson, president and CEO of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and a witness at the hearing, added that performers and visiting scholars often want to map out tour dates before coming to the U.S., and the uncertainty of visa timing is a deterrent.

Several months ago, the Manchester, England based Hallé Orchestra canceled scheduled performances in America when it was told that all 100 musicians and staff of the orchestra would have to travel to London to get visas in person.

Michael Fahlund, deputy director of the College Art Association, said that he hasn’t been tracking the issue specifically, but called it “unfortunate” that logistical hurdles are “in the way of making it easy for artists to exchange.”

Michael McCarry, executive director of the Alliance for International and Cultural Exchange, said that he hoped modern technology could alleviate the burden of in-person interviews.

When asked by the committee's chairman, Tom Davis (R-Va.), to characterize the visa experience of visiting artists, Ma responded, “Artists lose their dignity.”


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