Arts and culture fuel innovation and need to be at the table in any key strategic conversations about U.S. foreign policy. They also serve as a key component in strengthening our relationships abroad through effective international exchange and economic diplomacy.

Americans for the Arts encourages international cultural exchange between arts organizations and professionals to facilitate peer-to-peer learning and the sharing of common struggles and solutions in the ongoing efforts to ensure thriving arts centers around the world. As a result, we are often asked to join or host delegations of international arts leaders.

Americans for the Arts on the International Stage

As a longtime supporter of international cultural engagement, Americans for the Arts continues to collaborate with global artists and partners through a number of programs and initiatives, including:

  • Americans for the Arts’s expert staff meet regularly for foreign delegations and are available for speaking engagements through our Speakers Bureau.
  • The Public Art Network’s (PAN) annual Year in Review recognizes outstanding public art projects that represent the most compelling work for the year across the United States and around the globe. Click here for the Year in Review database, as well as application information.
  • Americans for the Arts also support international artist and professional exchanges on an ad hoc basis.
Local Arts Agencies (LAAs) Leading the Way

The 2015 Local Arts Agency Census found that 15% of respondents were involved in cultural exchange initiatives or international cultural engagement programs. The majority of those LAAs actively engaged with international partners sponsored or participated in 1 to 5 activities annually, while 2% oversaw more than 10 activities per year. Click here to see more results from the 2015 Census.

The International Cultural Engagement Survey (LAA International Survey) solicited specific information from the Local Arts Agencies that had self-identified as being engaged in international cultural activities through the American for the Arts 2010 Membership Survey. This survey elicited data from 19 of the original 75 organizations (a 25% response rate) and was complemented by in-depth interviews with representatives from select participating organizations.

Ondemand Webinar: Think Globally-Act Locally: How Local Arts Agencies Are Acting on the Global Stage

Moderated by Director of Arts Policy at Americans for the Arts Marete Wester, this webinar is focused on international cultural engagement on the local level.

Cultural Tourism

International travel and first-hand experience with a country’s art and culture continues to grow in popularity. The nations that take an active role in promoting cultural tourism in their countries continue to reap the rewards of their efforts.

Within the United States, cultural tourism has become a powerful means of expressing the uniqueness of the many diverse places and people found across our country. Globally, the travel market has become increasingly competitive. In 2016, over 75 million international tourists visited the United States, spending nearly $206 million in tourism receipts (according to the World Tourism Organization).

The 2012 Office of Travel & Tourism Industries report National Travel and Tourism Strategy put forth policies, actions, and recommendations that promote domestic and international travel throughout the United States. Americans for the Arts continues to work with our nations’ policymakers to advance cultural tourism in the United States. Download our one-pager for some quick facts about cultural tourism in the United States.

Americans for the Arts Resources
  • The National Arts Index found consistently favorable trends for Cultural Tourism
    • U.S. cultural destinations help grow the U.S. economy by attracting foreign visitor spending. Cultural tourism by foreign visitors is, effectively, a form of export by domestic arts and culture industries. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that the percentage of international travelers including “art gallery and museum visits” on their trip has grown since 2003 (17 to 24 percent), while the share attending “concerts, plays, and musicals” increased from 13 to 17 percent since 2003.
    • The U.S. keeps strengthening its international trade surplus. U.S. exports of arts goods (e.g., movies, paintings, jewelry) increased from $64 to $72 billion between 2010 and 2011, up 11 percent. With U.S. imports at just $25 billion, the arts achieved a $47 billion trade surplus in 2011.

Cultural Exchange

Rising powers, growing instability, and technological transformation create new threats, but also new opportunities. Leveraging civilian, non-governmental, and non-military power to advance our country’s national interests is a cost-effective investment for the American people. International cultural exchange among people living in different countries is a powerful tool for preventing armed conflict and managing crises, as well as a catalyst to spur economic growth. The Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy Review of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency of International Development calls for the use of civilian power to advance our national interests and to better partner with the U.S. military.

In envisioning a greater role for the arts in cultural diplomacy and engagement, 36 national and international public and private sector leaders met for the 2009 National Arts Policy Roundtable on “The Role of the Arts in Strengthening and Inspiring the 21st Century Global Community”. In light of the power of the arts to transcend differences and communicate across cultures, participants agreed on the need to assert a more visible and active role for the arts in improving the relations between the United States and the world. Five areas of recommendation emerged from the participants' discussions, which represent opportunities for improving public and private sector cooperation and action.

Areas of Focus

While there are many aspects that contribute to successful cultural exchange programs, two issues severely impact the success and growth of such programs:

  1. Inconsistent processing of foreign artists’ visa applications by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
  2. A lack of funding for the Cultural Programs Division of the State Department’s Office of Citizen Exchanges, resulting in difficulties in cultural exchanges

To learn more about these issues and  how you can help, visit the Legislative Issues Center

Other Resources
  • National Endowment for the Arts Webinars Bringing Foreign Artists to Your Stage Part I and Part II
  • The Artists from Abroad website, created by the League of American Orchestras and the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, provides tools to help artists navigate the visa process.


The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was founded in 1945 with the mission of “building peace in the minds of men and women” through the promotion of arts and culture, education, and science. Americans for the Arts was named to the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO in 2016, and though the United States will withdraw from the Organization effective December 31st, 2018, the country’s 90+ designations will remain active thanks to local support and activism.

View the UNESCO in the USA Infographic

UNESCO’s arts and culture network in the United States is centered on the country’s 9 Creative Cities. Founded in 2004, the Creative Cities Program promotes cooperation with and among cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable development. The international network is currently formed by 180 Members from 72 Countries. Successful Creative Cities like those found in the United States are grounded in local support from their mayor, small business, and private individuals. The U.S.’s 9 Creative Cities represent some of the country’s best locally-driven international initiatives and exchange programming.

View the US Creative Cities Infographic

Other Resources
  • To learn more about the history of UNESCO and its programs around the world, visit the UNESCO homepage
  • For more information on the UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UCCN), click here

Key Terms and Definitions

Citizen Diplomacy: The concept that the individual has the right, even the responsibility, to help shape U.S. foreign relations “one handshake at a time.” Citizen diplomats can be artists, students, teachers, athletes, artists, business people, humanitarians, adventurers, or tourists. They are motivated by a responsibility to engage with the rest of the world in a meaningful, mutually beneficial dialogue. To learn more about Citizen Diplomacy and how you can make a difference, visit the  U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy's website.

Creative Industries: Composed of both nonprofit and for profit businesses involved in the creation or distribution of the arts. In the United States, there are 904,581 such businesses and they employ 3.34 million people. The creative industries are a powerful economic driver as well as contributors to our nation’s cultural diversity, identity, traditions, and innovations. Learn more about Creative Industry Reports.

While Americans for the Arts has not published a report on international models, here are a few resources on creative industries outside the United States.

Cultural Diplomacy: A course of actions that are based on and utilize the exchange of ideas, values, traditions, and other aspects of culture or identity. The purpose of cultural diplomacy is to strengthen relationships, enhance sociocultural cooperation, and promote national interests. Cultural diplomacy can be practiced by the public sector, private sector, or civil society. For more on Culture Diplomacy programming, visit the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy's website.

Cultural Engagement: The active participation of the United States in relationships beyond our borders. Cultural engagement is mainly achieved through arts exchanges carried out for the primary purpose of the mutual transmission of cultural expression and artistic ideas.

21st Century Statecraft: New policies and programs that seek to leverage the power of information networks to support everything from improving healthcare and education to growing economies and expanding participation in government. This also includes new approaches to fostering civil society organizations and post-conflict stabilization work. For a broarder definition visit the U.S. Department of State's web pages.

Public Diplomacy (PD): Supports U.S. foreign policy goals and objectives by expanding and strengthening the relationship between the people and government of the United States and the citizens of the rest of the world. For examples of programs in support of Public Diplomacy visit the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational And Cultural Affairs website.

There are 5 strategic imperatives for PD in the 21st century:

  1. Shape the narrative
  2. Expand and strengthen people to people relationships
  3. Combat violent extremism
  4. Inform policy making
  5. Deploy resources in line with current priorities.

Soft Power: The ability to impact foreign policy and engagement through attraction rather than coercion or force. The term was coined by political scientist Joseph Nye, who identified three pillars of Soft Power:

  1. Political values
  2. Culture
  3. Foreign policy

According to the 2018 Soft Power 30 report – an annual ranking of Soft Power globally – the United States has the fourth strongest overall Soft Power, behind the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. The same report places the USA first in Cultural Soft Power and notes that “it is unlikely America’s global cultural ubiquity will decline anytime soon.”

More Resources

Organizations Working in International Cultural Exchange