In March 2020, when the pandemic hit the U.S. in full force, it derailed the field of international cultural exchange. ACC was preparing to approve a new round of grants, all involving international travel. Like most exchange organizations, ACC’s program model traditionally involved getting on a plane and traveling thousands of miles for in-person immersion in another culture. With this model challenged to near impossibility, ACC pivoted—reimagining our methods, yet maintaining our purpose.
We have since transformed nearly 70% of our proposed 2020 grants to hybrid or completely virtual models, ensuring that cultural exchange continues while travel cannot. This is new territory for our field. In these times of reinvention and uncertainty, it has been inspiring to hear the exciting and sometimes surprising results of our grantee’s virtual programs.
One example comes from internationally acclaimed composer, teacher, and activist Chinary Ung (ACC 1970-2012, 2013 JDR 3rd Award recipient). Chinary received his first ACC grant fifty years ago to travel to the U.S. and study music at Columbia University. Now a master composer, Chinary is teaching new generations of musicians in lessons held over Zoom. With decades of experience participating in cultural exchange, teaching thousands of students, and interacting with global networks of artists, Chinary found that transitioning his Nirmita Composers Institute workshops online has reframed international connections on a more intimate scale, with global participants tuning in from their own homes.
Meanwhile, the Music and Asian Studies departments at SUNY New Paltz, and the Gitameit Music Institute* in Yangon, Myanmar, have increased access to intercultural exchange by reinventing their workshop program in the virtual space. Students who would not have otherwise been able to travel to Myanmar can now learn about traditional Nat (spirit) worship music from master artists in the shared intercultural dialogues and experiences of online programming. Participants have found, moreover, that meaningful engagement with the arts has grounded their virtual experience in a way that opens up more human connections across the otherwise flat space of screen-to-screen exchange.
The pandemic may have disrupted our in-person programs, but ACC’s brilliant and creative artists on the ground have reinvented what cultural exchange looks and feels like. Innovation is vital to survival, and as a response, ACC is releasing restrictions and barriers to funding while exploring and amplifying new possibilities for exchange. This is a time to reexamine and reimagine. In a world order that continuously prioritizes economic and political interchange, it is cultural exchange that serves to connect us as individuals across the lines drawn to divide us.
The new models that have already begun to take form will not only enhance the future work of our sector as a whole, but also position ACC to strategically and creatively grow our program and expand our ability to respond to the needs, priorities, and concerns of the communities we serve. Our work does not begin when the pandemic finally ebbs and travel is again possible; our work is ongoing to ensure transformative exchanges amidst the challenges of today and the opportunities of the future.
*Hear more about the SUNY/Gitameit virtual collaboration and their Myanmar Spirit Worship Project at ACC’s next inDialogue talk series on Wednesday, September 9th, 7pm EDT. To register, click here.