The Art of Cultural Exchange

A project by Don Fels during his 2004-05 Fulbright to Kochi, India: employing out-of-work billboard painters to paint big the ‘legacy’ of Vasco da Gama’s arrival there 500 years ago

The Art of Cultural Exchange

By Donald Fels

Every country is proud of its artistic heritage and excited to celebrate and share it with visitors. But young people in many places don’t feel supported in their desire to become artists. I believe that the Fulbright Program could and should help change that by better promoting Fulbright Fellowship opportunities for independent artists. 

When, in my 70s, as a Fulbrighter in Uzbekistan, I was asked often how I had managed to sustain a life as a working artist. As part of the Soviet Union, Uzbek artists were systematically sent to Siberia, censored, or killed. Even today as an independent country, there is rampant fear and trepidation in choosing such a path. I was told over and over how exciting it was for these young people to meet a ‘real’ artist. Just being there, artists inspire.

Many countries offering Fulbright Fellowships omit art as one of the ‘disciplines’ or ‘professions’ for which individuals can apply. Perhaps this is an oversight or an unintended consequence. Yet having strong arts communities enrichens everyone, helping to build a robust sense of place, which in turn makes being there more attractive, productive, sustainable, and insightful. Numerous studies have shown that art and art events deliver considerable economic benefits. And certainly, a life spent working as an artist brings untold personal (and familial) rewards to those fortunate and stubborn enough to stay the course.

Everywhere, but especially in developing countries, those driven to become artists often struggle to find mentors and role models. Encouraging Fulbright artist applications would provide countries with an opportunity to bolster their own burgeoning artists.

However, few independent artists feel encouraged to apply for Fulbright opportunities. I’ve spoken with many American artists who are convinced that Fulbright grants are intended only for academics. When I served on the peer-selection panel for Indian Fulbright Scholars (the only artist and the only non-academic on the panel of eight), I noted that, in fact, nearly every artist who applied to India (one of the countries which encourages applicants from artists) taught at a university.

The lack of independent artist applications is an unfortunate reality because, as a group, working artists possess characteristics that could well contribute to making a Fulbright experience successful. By nature, curious, open-minded, quick on their feet, and adaptable, they know how to change course. As we Fulbright alumni know, the proposal one makes as a Fulbright applicant is rarely exactly what one can or even should carry out on the ground. Most importantly, in their host country, Fulbrighters are expected to be cultural ambassadors; worldwide, art is a bedrock of culture.

By better attracting arts practitioners and finding new ways to include them in the Fulbright Program, we can better work towards the highly worthy goal of cultural exchange. For example, artists should be encouraged to apply for the Specialist program, from which they are presently excluded. This would allow them to carry out short-term projects, perhaps in collaboration with others in-country.

When I received my first Fulbright Grant, I was several years out of college and had been exhibiting in galleries for over a decade. Deciding to apply for a Fulbright, I had to shoehorn my application into a slot intended for recent undergraduates. Targeting working artists would produce a better fit for them and for the Fulbright Program. Getting the word out to regional, state, and city arts commissions that applications are welcome from practicing artists would greatly broaden the pool for practitioners.

America is not just a country of those who can design a water system, teach economics, or research geomorphology. It is also where artists, delivering beauty and hope, dream, think grandly, look closely, and present the world in challenging new ways. With artists on deck, the Fulbright Program will sail off better equipped for our global journey ahead.

Visual artist Don Fels has been a Fulbright Fellow in Italy (1985-6), a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar in India (2004-5) and a Fulbright Scholar in Uzbekistan (2019). His work as an artist can be viewed at and

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