The art community must remain resilient after US withdrawal from UNESCO


Audrey Larcher

When President Donald Trump announced that the United States would leave the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, not many people knew how to respond. Some said the move, carried out to protest the organization’s supposed anti-Israel bias, was nothing more than a cheap nod to Trump’s Middle Eastern allies. Others noted that UNESCO’s services would survive petty presidential politics. Those not as familiar with the organization may have wondered what UNESCO stood for.

While this range of responses might suggest that our relationship with the organization isn’t important to most Americans’ lives, the withdrawal carries implications for arts communities across the country, including Austin’s. 

Trump’s prioritization of immature politics over the cultural understanding UNESCO promotes sends a message to creative professionals. It’s a message they understood almost as soon as he took office: Your contributions to America ,and the world, don’t matter. In this political climate of national and global dissonance, artists must prevail despite the president’s disrespect and amplify the dialogue their work encourages.

UNESCO plays an important role in protecting cultural history and facilitating its exchange around the world, from Paris to Indonesian rainforests to our own great state of Texas. The organization invited Austin to the creative cities network in 2015, affording artists global opportunities to showcase and collaborate on work. That same year, the San Antonio Missions earned a UNESCO World Heritage designation, which ensures site maintenance.

“Austin has a lot to gain both in terms of global exposure but also global interaction,” Clay Odom, assistant professor in the school of architecture, said. Odom experienced the power of cross-cultural collaboration when UNESCO featured his piece “Flowering Phantasm” in Paris at the 2017 exhibit “DATA CITY.” “The ability to show work internationally, to connect with international artists and curators and to gain critical engagement with the larger world in general is crucial to creating vibrant and meaningful work.”

UNESCO may not provide programs as immediately necessary as the U.N. Security Council, but what it stands for — namely, art and culture as a means of growth and cooperation — is crucial to diplomacy and general human welfare. At times when the path of progress and order feels uncertain, we find common ground in sharing culture. Trump spat on that idea with the withdrawal.

Fortunately, the president doesn’t have power to nullify the relationships our state and city have developed with UNESCO. Abandoning our seat at the table just means we won’t pay dues or vote on resolutions. Still, artists should not mistake this situation as anything less than a dismissal of their communities and their spot on Trump’s priority list.

Moving forward, artists and those interested in preserving culture will have work to do. Creative professionals who benefit from the Creative Cities Network, World Heritage Convention or any other UNESCO relationship should be vocal about how they benefit. Texans need these people to tell them why art, culture and UNESCO are important. Hosting more exhibits and shows with international focus is imperative.

Since Trump’s inauguration and the soon-to-follow threats to arts funding, artists have known what they’re up against. This withdrawal is a reminder that we must value every bit of ground we have in the battle against Trump. The aftermath is our opportunity to prove how resilient education, culture and arts truly are.

Larcher is a Plan II and rhetoric and writing sophomore from Austin.