Putting Stock in Trade- Americans line up for Soviet exchange

  • Capital Connections ®
  • |
  • April 20, 1986

by Karen Feld

There might not be a lot of rubles in it, but it’s trendy and prestigious to jump on the bandwagon now that the United States and Soviet Union cultural exchange program is in effect. 

American impresarios, local and national, are lining up to do business with the Soviets, at least while the idea is still novel.  Everyone from San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein to high school baseball teams has adopted an entrepreneurial spirit. 

Pianist Vladimir Horowitz is the first American artist scheduled to play in the Soviet Union under the agreement. 

The six-year hiatus on cultural exchange between the two countries, which began with the Soviets’ 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, ended last November with the signing of a new General Exchange Agreement in Geneva.  It marked the resumption of official exchanges in the areas of academic, culture, sports, health and the performing arts.

The section of the agreement dealing with the performing arts and culture calls for reciprocal tours of at least 10 major performing arts groups and trous of at least 10 individual performers between 1986 and 1988.

The first major Soviet performing arts group to tour the United States will be the Kirov Ballet of Leningrad.  The original home company of Mikhal Baryschnikov, Natalin Makarova, and Rudolf Nureyev.  The Kirov, which has not played the United States in 22 years, is booked into three cities: Los Angeles, May 21-26; Philadelphia, May 28-31; and Washington, June 2-5.

The Ganelin Trio, a jazz group, will tour the United States this summer, and the Moscow State Orchestra will tour next fall.  

Other discussions are under way, but those are the only firm bookings in the United States, and no other American artists have been officially designated to perform in the Soviet Union. 

Charles Wick, director of the United States Information Agency and once a talent agent, has the responsibility of implementing the General Exchanges Agreement.  He established a coordinator’s office within the agency to encourage and facilitate the U.S.-Soviet cultural exchange within the American private sector. 

The November agreement, which followed long negotiations, caught many people off guard and created a scramble to implement it.  And with the six-year lapse in the cultural exchange process, the USIA didn’t have funds or personnel in place. Not only are the entertainers booked years ahead (the Kirov was taken off a Canadian tour to come to the United States), but also the agency budget is planned a year or two in advance. Before 1979, this assignment was handled by the State Department. 

Stephen Rhinesmith, an expert in international exchange who heads the USIA coordinator’s office is working on a three-year plan for the exchanges. “Our purpose is to expand contact between the people of the United States and the people of the Soviet Union.  The more people of the Soviet Union.  The more people know about one another, the better,” Rhinesmith says.

The major difference in the way the two governments operate is that Goskoncert, the Soviet state concert organization, call all the shots in the Soviet Union.  Once Goskoncert decides who will come, the Soviet tours are managed in the United States by private impresarios. 

The USIA has been flooded with hundreds of proposals from organizations ranging from high schools that would like to send their baseball teams to the Soviet Union to major symphony orchestras and pop recording groups.

The process works as follows. The National Endowment for the Arts recommends groups to go to the Soviet Union. The list is sent to the US Embassy in Moscow for review. Officials there choose the mix and balance of performers. “We would like to send a Broadway play, a Dixieland group, individual country and pop artists – a wide range, groups and individuals who are representatives of America,” Rhinesmith says.

Those recommendations are then presented to Goskoncert for discussions. 

In the case of Horowitz, his manager, Peter Gelb of Columbia Artists Management, entered into negotiations with Goskoncert.  According to Gelb, the talks moved at a snail’s pace. “There’s no such thing as Express Mail to Russia,” he said.

“In dealing with a government agency such as Goskoncert, one has to negotiate the financing and artistic endeavors separately, with the government as the intermediary,” says Jane Herman, director of presentations for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.   She is involved in discussions with Goskoncert to bring Soviet conductors and vocalists to the United States. “We’re now at the availability stage,” she says. Herman is also involved at a more specific level in negotiations to bring the Bolshoi Ballet and Opera to America.

“They’re very savvy people,” says Herman about Goskoncert officials.  “They know what their talent is worth, and they’re playing the American market for all it’s worth. The Russians are not going to come cheap.  The Americans will pay every nickel.”

The desire to be a local presenter is widespread in the United States, she says. Even San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein and her husband, financial entrepreneur Dick Blum reportedly visited the Soviet Union in an effort to bring the Bolshoi to San Francisco.  Washington arts patron Adrienne Arsht Feldman has met with representatives of Goskoncert in an effort to take members of the American Ballet Theater to the Soviet Union. 

“Everybody wants to take Frank Sinatra to the Soviet Union,” Rhinesmith says, “but there’s absolutely no confirmation that Frank Sinatra is going anywhere.” Dustin Hoffman doesn’t have a plane ticket to Moscow yet either, although insiders say “Tootsie” is one of Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s favorite films. 

Prestige, rather than money, motivates American performers to go there.  “There’s no way the Soviets will make a visit to the Soviet Union a financial bonanza for Americans,” Rhinesmith says.  “Financially, it’s a one-way show. Americans will pay top box-office prices to see Soviet performers, but the Soviet philosophy about the performing arts is different.  We’re pressing the Soviets for higher fees.”

To reap some financial rewards for their efforts, American performers are looking into television and recording rights for their performances. Recording artists who command $30,000 to $40,000 dollars or more per concert here, won’t get more than $5,000 of $10,000 dollars in the Soviet Union, Rhinesmith says. 

The Soviets are getting $10,000 to $20,000 a performance for major groups like the Kirov Ballet, Rhinesmith says. “The Soviets look at American ticket prices, $30 to $40 each, and their eyes light up, but the cost of staging, housing, and feeding 120 people in Washington or New York is enormous.  The Soviets may walk away with a half a million dollars because they work a group hard, seven days a week, but with the exception of a long grueling tour in the US, they don’t appear to be walking off with millions.”

Although some American impresarios may earn big bucks, the Soviets probably will come out the big winner financially in the performing arts exchange.  But those involved hope that the agreement will prove to be a step toward a free flow of cultural accomplishments.

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