28 October 2010

Political background on US participation in world expos

by Alfred Heller with commentary from Judith Rubin and Gordon Linden

The USA Pavilion at the upcoming Shanghai Expo 2010 marks a significant turnaround (hopefully for the long term) in the US administration's attitude toward participation in world's fairs. Since around 1990, US presence at world expos has been very uneven and Federal support had fallen off dramatically. This 1992 editorial by Alfred Heller, editor of the former World's Fair magazine, provides some excellent background on the state of affairs at the United States Information Agency (USIA), which headed up US participation in expos abroad. The USIA was founded in 1955 as an independent foreign affairs agency within the executive branch, to explain and support American foreign policy and promote US national interests through a variety of overseas information programs. In 1999, the USIA was integrated into the US Department of State. – Judith Rubin

The US Eliminates Its Expo Office in Spite of Post-Cold-War Opportunities
by Alfred Heller

If you thought the worldwide criticism of the half-hearted, almost distracted US presence at Seville Expo 92 would somehow inspire the revitalization of the responsible federal agency, think again. The BIE (International Bureau of Expositions) office of the exhibits service of the United States Information Agency (USIA), never a robust unit, has not only not been revived, it no longer exists. John Coppola, former chief of the office, took a job at the Smithsonian Institution in 1991 and was not replaced. Kathleen Kalb, a career civil servant with plentiful world's fair experience, was removed as project manager of the US pavilion at Genoa's Colombo 92, after fundamental disagreements with representatives of the Amway Corporation, who had been allowed to take over the administration of the exhibit. Anita Grinvalds, an exhibits administrator in the office, was dismissed.

With so many expos coming up – Taejon next year, Budapest 1996, Lisbon 1998, Hanover 2000 – the exhibits service ought to be hard-pressed without expo staff. It isn't. The US is not exhibiting in Taejon, Budapest or Lisbon. That's official, that's policy, says John Carroll, chief of the operations division of the service. Instead, the USIA may designate the state of Alaska, possibly in combination with the Amway Corporation, never far from the expo scene these days, as the US representative in Taejon.

William K. Jones, director of the exhibits service, took Coppola's seat as US representative to the general assembly of the BIE, and has since become vice-chairman of the BIE executive committee, even as the expo office in his own agency has disappeared. Under the USIA's just-say-no policy, he abstained from the vote that selected Lisbon over Toronto for the 1998 expo, an undoubted cause of frustration for the losing bidder (and the US's good neighbor).

US policy toward expos has been under scrutiny by the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. With staff director Bruce Gregory, members of this presidentially appointed group visited the Seville expo to see the beleaguered US pavilion for themselves and talk with expo officials from Spain, Japan, Australia, France and the BIE. They must have gotten an earful, but all Gregory will say is that the commission has always believed, “if the US government is to become concerned in these events, we [should] do it well.” The conclusions of the current review won't be available until next year.

In its last annual report, the commission said world's fairs occur too often and “have outstripped the nation's willingness to fund them,” an opinion that has little or no factual basis. Congress does not jump to attention when asked for funding for US pavilions, in part because the second-rate exhibits the nation has been producing would give anyone pause. Nor are there too many world's fairs as the USIA, along with the advisory commission, believes. Some countries might not be able to justify spending a whole lot for expos; however, the US, Japan, Canada, Germany, the UK and others are always seeking new markets for their products and hoping to attract foreign visitors. They can probably derive, from each and every expo, benefits that far exceed the costs of participating. But I doubt the US government has ever conducted a broad-ranging cost-benefit analysis on the subject. In the meantime, no federal money is to be spent in any fashion on the three remaining expos of the '90s. Per order of Henry Catto, Jr., director, United States Information Agency.

With the sudden end of the Communist threat, budget-makers have been taking aim at the USIA, traditionally the propaganda arm of the government. What, after all, is left for the agency to do in a de-demonized world? In this atmosphere, the annual appropriation for Will Jones's exhibits service has been reduced from $1 million to $600,000. The money goes for such items as modest, portable shows of posters at US stations abroad. But to survive, the USIA still has to define a compelling new role for itself. The Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy should consider whether consistent, artful, expanded participation by the United States in world's fairs would be effective in helping the nation win the peace following decades of cold war: win the essential economic and cultural competitions, secure global environmental quality, and inspire those struggling for democratic rule. In my view, an exhibits service should be a growth industry in the USIA or some other, more receptive agency, and I would so advise the White House and the next president.

Reprinted with permission of World's Fair Inc. www.worldsfairs.com.

Editor's updates: John Coppola retired from the Smithsonian in 2005 and became a museum consultant. James Ogul, US project manager at Seville and atprevious expos, retired in 2011 from the Department of State. He played a role in vetting Nick Winslow's team for the USA Pavilion at Shanghai 2010... The Budapest 1996 expo was canceled... Bruce Gregory is currently an adjunct assistant professor at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs. Henry Catto is currently vice president of the Aspen Institute... US membership in the BIE lapsed in 2002... In 1992, George HW Bush was ending his presidency, and William Clinton was elected to follow him. The US did ultimately have a presence at Taejon Expo 93, a small exhibit paid for by Amway Corp. and other private entities, designed by Stuart Silver in association with Rathe Prodns.

Present-day US government players whose actions have been instrumental in raising funds and garnering support for the USAP at Shanghai 2010 include Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, US Ambassador Elizabeth Frawley Bagley and the Office of Public-Private Partnerships, Kris Balderston (Clinton's former chief of staff during her Senate years) and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. Jose Villareal is Commissioner General, named by Clinton. The team producing the pavilion is headed by Nick Winslow and Ellen Eliasoph. – J.R.

Postscript: The US Presence at Seville Expo 92
Gordon Linden


Gordon Linden, who played a consulting role on the US Pavilion at Seville Expo 92, contributed the following postscript. It further illustrates how a lack of Federal support undermined the project. Linden is currently consulting for the city of Edmonton, Canada in its bid to host the 2017 world expo. He is author of The Expo Book, www.theexpobook.com.

Plans for the U.S. presence at Seville’s Expo 92 initially coalesced with the US announcing the team of Barton Meyers Associates, BHA Design (Barry Howard) and Sussman/Prezja as the winner of an architectural competition to design the pavilion and exhibits. The project began to go forward but without firm financial commitments despite the efforts of commissioner general Fred Bush (no relation to the presidential family). When the costs started adding up and government oversight began in earnest, the project was halted and a hasty re-design ordered. Only a few design elements from the winning concept were retained. To save money, two used geodesic dome structures which the US Government owned were brought to the Seville site to provide interior exhibition spaces. Major League Baseball, attempting to promote the sport in Spain and Europe during the run-up to the 1992 Olympic Games which were held in Barcelona, had an outdoor exhibition in which Spanish-speaking players from the Major Leagues demonstrated their skills. General Motors had a display, as did Seville’s sister city, Kansas City. Bowing to pressure from outspoken Senators who sought to further control cost, project management of the pavilion was assigned to the US Navy submarine base in nearby Rota. Inexperienced in this type of undertaking, the Rota team became embroiled in several disputes and internal difficulties; these were eventually were sorted out and the pavilion was finished in time for opening day. The conceptual cost estimate, provided by the original architectural team, for the pavilion structure was $7 million. Yet, even with the redesign and use of prefabricated structures, it actually cost twice that - $14 million; the total US participation costs, including the pavilion, were about $35 million. In spite of the trials and tribulations the US team faced in mounting the exhibit, over 3.1 million visits were recorded which put the pavilion in the top quarter of the participating nations in terms of popularity.