Ralph Samuelson

Director, Asian Cultural Council

Presentation for the Leadership Conference on Conservancy and Development


September 1999, Yunnan Province, China

I have been particularly moved and impressed by the thorough research and the serious care and attention with which scholars and government officials in Yunnan are addressing the problems of conservancy and development.

I am very privileged to be among the group of foreign guests at this conference. Throughout the conference, we have often heard this group referred to as the Aforeign experts and specialists,@ but I wish to assure you that I am neither an expert nor a specialist.

I haven=t prepared a formal paper for this occasion and I simply wish to share with you some thoughts and observations based on my experience at the Asian Cultural Council, which is a foundation supporting cultural exchange in the arts between the United States and the countries of Asia.

  1. Cultural Conservancy and Preservation

    What is the meaning of these terms? If we are speaking of culture and art, I don=t think these are quite the right words to use. What we are looking for is a way to maintain a meaningful place for cultural traditions within the fabric of the life of today and the future, and to maintain a support system for tradition. Form alone is empty. How this can be accomplished will vary greatly from place to place B there is no single model.

    In Japan for example, the traditional arts were always maintained within a family and guild system that was a bit outside mainstream society. Even though Japanese society has changed greatly, this system has its own internal mechanism to continue support for and transmission of the traditional arts.

    This despite the fact that these art forms are not taught in schools.

    If we look at the folk arts, as they have lost meaning in the village setting (migration to cities, loss of agricultural lifestyle) they have adapted this same system for survival. An example is the folk music of the Tsugaru region of northern Japan, which has become very popular in Tokyo and other urban centers.

    In Bali, on the other hand, arts and ritual are still closely woven within the fabric of everyday life and the Balinese have so far been able to protect their culture, even in the face of a huge wave of tourism.

    And the traditional arts are incorporated into the school curriculum.

  2. When we use terms like Acultural preservation@ or Atraditional culture@ we might be implying that culture is static, yet we know that this is not the case. Furthermore our distinction between traditional culture and contemporary expression is not so clear cut. As tradition speaks to the present, it is constantly transformed, while contemporary artistic expression cannot help but be rooted in the past. Indeed, it is the interplay of the traditional and the modern that best expresses the cultural vitality of Asia today. And we have several Asian artists here at the conference who I hope will share their insights with us. So, although we are trying to speak of conservancy and preservation, we are really dealing with an organic system: the place of tradition in society, the transformation of tradition through time, the interplay of the old and the new.

3. The Role of International Exchange

Through international exchange, ideas and information are shared. Participants in international exchange programs are offered the opportunity for a new way of seeing, an expanded vision, and, reflexively, a secure sense of self and home. By bringing diverse individuals and communities closer together, enhancing international understanding, and expanding the vision of individuals and the institutions they represent, cultural exchange helps to support and maintain a place for the arts and humanities in a world in which priorities increasingly lie elsewhere.

Some examples from the work of the ACC:

Indonesian Museum Development Program (IMDP) B realizing the importance of education; struggling with the role that museums can play in the local community.

Triangle Arts Program (TAP) B exploring the fundamentals of healthy arts communities in different cultural settings. We find more similarities than differences B the challenges and needs of artists, traditional or modern, are surprisingly similar.

In closing, I want to emphasize the importance of education in creating a support system for cultural conservancy and in giving people the opportunity to make informed choices.

I will leave Lijiang with the image of the Giordano fashion store on one side of the street and the entrance to the old city on the other. This is the stark reality. We live in a world where the old and the new coexist and we have to find appropriate ways for each to help and strengthen the other, to bring them together as a coherent whole.