17 October 2022

Political background on US participation in world expos

by Alfred Heller with commentary from Judith Rubin and Gordon Linden
Updated Oct 17, 2022 by Judith Rubin

The USA Pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010 marked 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 at this writing had become a museum consultant. 
  • James Ogul, US project manager at Seville and at previous 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. He continues to write and consult on world expos.
  • The Budapest 1996 expo was canceled.
  • At the time of this writing, Bruce Gregory was an adjunct assistant professor at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs. 
  • At the time of this writing, Henry Catto was vice president of the Aspen Institute.
  • US membership in the BIE lapsed in 2002. In 2017, the US rejoined the BIE, urged by lobbying from the group advocating for Expo 2027 Minnesota
  • 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. 
  • US government players whose actions were instrumental in raising funds and garnering support for the USAP at Shanghai 2010 included 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 was 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.

16 March 2022

Michael's new sweater

The big appeal of working in the attractions industry is being part of a community of creative people. To a great extent, the industry is made up of folks who studied art, film or theater, then found they could make a career in themed entertainment. I earned a BFA at Pratt Institute and found my way to a publishing career by combining various interests, skills and experiences including knitting and crochet. Before I was an attractions industry journalist and publicist, I was a needlecraft editor and knitwear designer. I've continued to knit and crochet, and as an upcycling enthusiast my recent projects are mostly done with scrap yarn. Here, my husband Michael models my most recent original design and creation. It's gone viral in an upcycling forum so I thought I'd show it off here, too.

28 February 2022

MO History Museum finds success in a locally-driven model

"The more we include, the more interdisciplinary the educational opportunities and interactives are, the more diverse stories we tell, the greater the feedback and reaction from our community," says Nicole D'Orazio, Director of Exhibitions, Missouri History Museum.

Nicole D'Orazio

In 30+ years of covering the attractions industry, I've done many stories on museums using external specialists and external creative teams to design and produce exhibitions. The internal/external model is also often implemented (to positive effect) in the creation of visitor attractions and theme park experiences. In my role editing the TEA/AECOM Theme Index over the past 15 years, which includes a definitive, annual study of the world's top-attended museums, I've also seen and helped chronicle how large museums in destination cities often depend (and benefit from) traveling blockbuster exhibitions to drive visitation in a two-year cycle.

In contrast, the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis has deliberately gone the other direction to mount a series of highly successful exhibitions that tell local stories, using in-house teams and local suppliers, to resounding response from the community and dramatic attendance growth. (One of my personal favorites was "Little Black Dress," and the picture at top is one of the sketches I made there.) 

I interviewed Nicole D'Orazio about this direction and their process, through the lens of the "St. Louis Sound" exhibition running through Jan. 2023. 

Click here for full story and more pictures, published by InPark.

Also check out Nicole's personal website, which includes photos and diagrams of the innovative temporary wall system she helped design.

16 December 2021

Reasons to attend both Licensing Expo and IAAPA Expo in 2022

Licensing Expo is to the global licensing industry what the annual IAAPA Expo is to the worldwide attractions industry - it's the big one, the one everyone has on their calendar. And now, if you're a regular attendee of one or the other, you might want to start planning for both. Here are the dates and places - read on to find out why:

  • 2022 Licensing Expo, Las Vegas, May 24-26
  • 2022 IAAPA Expo, Orlando, November 15-18

The worlds of licensing and attractions have overlapped for some time, but that synergy has now reached the point where brands and IP owners are establishing verticals dedicated to collaborating in the attractions space (or as many call it, the LBE - location-based entertainment space). A branded or IP-based attraction is often part of a holistic, multi-platform rollout.  

This is leading to new genres of storytelling and immersive experiences that enrich the attractions and events space, and it's a win-win-win-win: 

  • for the brand (new avenues of exposure and options to build loyalty)
  • for the operator (new revenue streams and audiences, differentiation, reinvestment to attract repeat visits) 
  • for the customer/fan (new ways to connect with the brand and the community around it, new stories and experiences to explore)
  • for the attractions industry as a whole (new projects and partnerships)

License Global is embracing the LBE topic for its 2022 Licensing Expo in Las Vegas. It will mark the return to in-person meeting for Licensing Expo. 

I was honored to be invited to help kick off the conversation on Dec 2, 2021 by moderating a webinar featuring two top brands very active and visible in the LBE space: Crayola (represented by Warren Schorr), Hasbro (represented by Matt Proulx) as well as the top consultant working with brands to realize their LBE dreams, George Wade of Bay Laurel Advisors. I've had the pleasure to work with all three and report on their projects in theme parks, museums, family entertainment centers (FECs), hospitality and more.

The speakers were upbeat and candid during the webinar about what it takes to bring a brand to life in an out-of-home experience. Nearly 400 people attended the webinar and there was an engaging Q&A as the final segment.

The full webinar is available on-demand, free with registration at this link.  

You can read more on the subject at InPark.

See you in 2022!

15 December 2021

Bob Weis of Disney Imagineering: exclusive interview & podcast

I first met Bob Weis in 2005 or 2006 when he was running his own company in Orlando, Bob Weis Design Island. They were finishing Top of the Rock, a permanent exhibition at Rockefeller Center in New York City about the building's history, tied to the reopening of the observation decks. I wrote a detailed feature about the project for Exhibit Builder magazine. The story also ran in the 2007 Themed Entertainment Association Annual & Directory, and can be found here: (Top of the Rock PDF download, via InPark). 

Prior to Design Island, Bob had already done significant work as part of Walt Disney Imagineering, including the original Tower of Terror, which of course is the classic attraction based on an elevator journey. Top of the Rock included a unique media feature in its elevator (historical rather than harrowing) and I used the tie-in to do another story, "Elevator Man," that ran in Attractions Management. 

After rejoining Disney executive leadership in 2008, Bob Weis, master of experience design, led creative teams to produce some very distinguished, groundbreaking, even monumental international theme park projects including new attractions and features for Disney California Adventure Park (such as World of Color) and of course Shanghai Disney Resort. He'd become a familiar face at the TEA Thea Awards and TEA Summit and was honored in 2020 with the Buzz Price Thea Award Recognizing a Lifetime of Distinguished Achievements. 

Bob mentioned Top of the Rock as a favorite non-Disney project when I interviewed him recently to discuss his latest move: transitioning from Walt Disney Imagineering President to that of Global Ambassador, a role originated by the late, great Marty Sklar. Bob's successor as President of Imagineering is Barbara Bouza. 

In our conversation, Bob talks about people, projects, storytelling and technology, team culture, the themed entertainment industry, museums, mentoring the next generation of experience designers, Disney movies, Disney Plus, the future of Imagineering, his goals as Imagineering Global Ambassador, and more. 

The interview is available in two forms: 

 Photo courtesy Disney, used with permission 


14 December 2021

Making Omega Mart

The Meow Wolf artists' collective has introduced a new and very welcome level of disruption to the attractions and themed entertainment industry while setting new examples for what immersive experience can be. Meow Wolf works to establish a sustainable model that supports artists and brings the public closer to art in novel  settings where unexpected things happen and nothing is quite what it seems at first. The Meow Wolf flagship, The House of Eternal Return, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, opened in 2016 with key support from George R.R. Martin, and was honored in 2017 with a Thea Award. 

Describing the Meow Wolf experience, Marsi Gray, Las Vegas senior creative producer, says, “You start in a familiar place. From there, wormholes and portals transport you to unknown worlds.” 

The second Meow Wolf venue, Omega Mart, opened in February 2021 at Area15 in Las Vegas. The guest experience begins in what is ostensibly a supermarket, leading to a network of media-rich spaces and storytelling that comments on consumerism and corporate culture. The adventure is open-ended and self-guided. Visitors can spend as much time as they like in the four anchor spaces and numerous individual art installations.

This article, originally written for Lighting&Sound America, is a 4,000-word, deep dive into the complex creative and technical innovation of Omega Mart. It explores lighting, audio, projection, technical design, interactivity, music and the unique Meow Wolf culture.

Click here for "Let's go shopping! The intricacies of Meow Wolf's Omega Mart." 

Photo courtesy Meow Wolf. 

13 December 2021

Robert Clark talks to Jim Ogul about the USA Pavilion at Dubai Expo 2020

Robert G. Clark
is the United States Commissioner General heading up the USA Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai, on behalf of the U.S. State Department. (Although it kept "2020" in its title, the expo dates were moved to 2021 due to the pandemic.) 

Jim Ogul is our world's fair specialist at InPark magazine. Jim literally wrote the book on US pavilions at world expos, because he oversaw the creation of those pavilions for most of his career with the US State Dept. He retired from the State Dept. but continues to work as a consultant and to write for InPark. I first got to know Jim in the 1990s when I was associate editor of World's Fair magazine, published by the late Alfred Heller.

When the Dubai expo opened, Jim reached out to Bob Clark for an interview - and as Clark is a St. Louisian, I joined the conversation to add some St. Louis specific questions. 

In 1904 STL hosted a landmark world’s fair of its own, with a legacy still tangible. Prior to his diplomatic career, Clark was executive chairman of Clayco, a leading design-build company he founded in 1984 in St. Louis. 

The theme of the USA Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai is “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of the Future.” 

 In the interview, Clark said, "All world expos share something at the heart. They are about innovation, cultural shifts and changes, and the other dramatic human concepts that grow out of gathering in one large place – with all the nations joining to show that we can do more together than we can apart."

Click here to read the full interview published by InPark.

"There is a special magic in City Museum"

St. Louis has been my adopted hometown since 2008. People who live and visit here quickly learn to treasure the city's unique cultural assets, including the St. Louis Zoo, the Muny outdoor theater, the National Blues Museum, the Gateway Arch and of course the one and only City Museum, and the legacy of its creator, the late Bob Cassilly. 

As a journalist for the attractions industry, it's always a delight when I can make a St. Louis connection. When the Themed Entertainment Association held its annual strategic planning meeting in STL a few years back, I helped ensure that it included a team-building adventure at City Museum. And when Premier Parks acquired City Museum, it was a special pleasure to interview Kieran Burke about his vision for the future. - Judith Rubin

Excerpts from the interview with Kieran Burke, Premier Parks Chairman, President & CEO:

"My entire organization fell in love with City Museum and I fell back in love with the city of St. Louis as I became more familiar with it and with what’s going on in downtown, such as the ballpark, the redevelopment of Union Station and the improvements at the Arch grounds." 

"One of the things inherited at City Museum was Cassilly’s crew of artists that create the amazing exhibits. Most remained and have their own studios within the facility. We are very committed to maintaining that crew; the director there is sensational, nurturing artistic development."

"There is a special magic with City Museum. It is such a complex organism, hard to define. We came to the table with great respect and reverence for what we were acquiring. We’re extremely excited about its potential to be part of a renaissance in the city."  

Click here for Judith Rubin's full interview with Kieran Burke about Premier Parks and City Museum.

Image courtesy City Museum and Premier Parks.

Cosm Studios releases new fulldome film "Atlas of a Changing Earth"

Atlas of a Changing Earth
, an award-winning immersive documentary exploring images of the planet’s evolution amid rising temperatures, is being distributed by Cosm Studios and is available for booking as a 24-minute fulldome show for planetariums, museums and science centers, and as a 50-minute, 4K flat screen show for television and streaming distribution worldwide.

The show has already been booked by several museums, including Museum of the Rockies and Morehead Planetaarium. It will be featured on Amazon Prime Video and distributed to broadcast television in Europe through TVF International.

Atlas of a Changing Earth has been featured at a number of fulldome festivals and industry events, including Dome Fest West in Los Angeles, where it was honored as Best Environmental Film. 

Atlas of a Changing Earth premiered at Spitz Digital Institute 2021 and screened on the Evans & Sutherland DomeX LED dome system at The Cosm Experience Center in Salt Lake City, where participants in the Digistar Users Group (DUG) meeting were able to view it. Cosm CEO and President Jeb Terry, Jr., says, “This show is cutting-edge digital cinema, so it’s only fitting to feature it on DomeX, the world’s first 8K immersive LED dome.”

Click for full story and details with industry background and video.

Photo courtesy Cosm.