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Banking on KC - Tristan Duncan

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Tristan Duncan of Shook, Hardy & Bacon: Fostering Diplomacy Through Art

Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Tristan Duncan with Shook, Hardy, and Bacon LLP, where she co-chairs the Class Action and Appellate Practice Group, as well as the Energy Industry Group. She's also the chair of the Art and Museum Law Group, and is involved in the Nelson-Atkins Business Council, which is hosting an event about the use of art in diplomacy. Tristan's with us today to discuss the use of art in diplomacy, the Nelson-Atkins Museum's role in that, and other instances throughout history when art has been used to foster cultural understanding and diplomacy. Welcome, Tristan.

Tristan Duncan:

Good to be with you.

Kelly Scanlon:

I don't think many of us really think about art being used in this way. So I'm eager to hear about how Kansas City, and the Nelson in particular, has been involved in these efforts. One of the things that I have heard used in this instance, or in this situation is the term soft power. And I've heard that used with museums that are able to work alongside governments and other institutions to influence relationships, particularly international relationships. So can you elaborate on that for us? How is it that museums, through art are able to bring about this kind of broad-based positive change that fosters this unofficial political-relationship building?

Tristan Duncan:

Sure, you're exactly right, Kelly, historians and scholars have applauded the role of soft power in facilitating diplomatic relations between countries. So some of your listeners may ask, "Well, what is soft power?" It generally refers to a nation's cultural history and artistic accomplishments. And that of course is in contrast to hard power or military might, like guns and tanks. Soft power, or as it's being called today, smart power, is about persuasion. And art can play an important role in winning hearts and minds. The beautiful and iconic art of a nation can be an effective tool in negotiations because it can be used, for example, to break the ice when starting discussions on tense or difficult topics, it can be used to create common ground and shared values. It may seem counterintuitive that the beauty of a nation, its paintings and sculptures and decorative arts, for example, can actually wield power and influence, but of course it was Voltaire, the famous Enlightenment era political philosopher who said, "Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come."

Tristan Duncan:

So back to your question about how do museums function in this way, museums can be places of inspiration. They have the best creative examples of art and culture of a nation, they're places where people go to be inspired and to come away with new perspectives. So in that way, they have a practical, positive benefit in relationship building. They can be used as a springboard to more productive dialogues and problem solving. So one of my favorite personal stories that illustrates the power of art to change perspectives is related to the Nelson. When I was a young girl, my mother took me to the Nelson, which I loved, I found great inspiration there. And I in turn, as a mother, took my daughter there. And then she became a teen tour guide at the Nelson.

Tristan Duncan:

And she was taking group of students around the Nelson and talking about the various pieces. And they reached a piece, that's still there to this day, it's called the Aluminum-Magnesium Plain, and it's basically a set of alternating gray and black squares on the floor. And after she explained the piece, she overheard a mother say, "I just don't understand why this is art." And at that moment, my daughter realized it actually was her favorite piece in the museum. And she piped up and said, "This is my favorite piece because it's actually the only piece in the museum..." At least at that time, "... that you can stand on and walk on and touch. And the artist wanted art to be more accessible to the people, to take it down from pedestals and to have a democratizing effect." And after she explained this point of view, the lady turned to the children and said, "You see children, this is what is so wonderful about art, it has the power to change minds. Now that I see this perspective, I agree and love this piece too."

Tristan Duncan:

So that personal anecdote from the Nelson, I think helps demonstrate the transformative power of art and its ability to build bridges between people. The Nelson did that, museums do that. As you mentioned in the opening, the Business Council for the Nelson has an event coming up that's going to tap into this issue of the transformative power of art, or art specifically, in diplomatic conversations. That event is May 12th, and the topic is art and diplomacy. And one of the examples that we expect the panelists to discuss is the role of certain pieces within the Diplomatic Reception Rooms at the US State Department to function as vehicles for persuading heads of state from other foreign nations. The Diplomatic Reception Rooms is actually a suite of rooms that serves as a backdrop for the diplomatic work that is done there, but their function actually goes quite literally beyond the decorative as art, and it's housed there to speak about who we are as a nation and impress upon visitors the values of the country.

Tristan Duncan:

An example is the Treaty of Paris Desk, it's a mahogany writing desk on which the Treaty of Paris was signed. That treaty ended the Revolutionary War and recognize the United States as a sovereign nation. So it literally is where the birth of our nation occurred. So as a piece of art, it may not be the best example at that particular mahogany desk, but what's significant about it is the historical moment that it captures. And that's how it's used by the Secretaries of State, they talk about its symbolic significance, and they go into, for example, the behind-the-scenes negotiations of diplomacy that occurred to reach that lasting peace. The Secretaries of State will walk their counterparts to the desk to talk about it, and the long history of diplomacy and peacekeeping efforts as essentially a jumping-off point to more formal diplomatic discussions. So that's a historical example of how a piece of art is used to break the ice, for example, and lay the groundwork for diplomatic conversations even today.

Kelly Scanlon:

And what I find especially intriguing about the desk example that you gave, is that it's not just democracy as a concept. When you're standing there and you see the desk where the treaty was signed, that gave birth to a democracy, it brings something tangible, there's a tangible symbol there, and it's not just talking in these esoteric terms about democracy, it's real, you can touch it through that desk.

Tristan Duncan:

Well, and it's almost like you relive the moment.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes.

Tristan Duncan:

And therefore it has more resonance than just talking about democracy in a textbook and in the abstract. And another perfect example of that historical piece of art that serves a diplomatic function is a piece in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, it's called the Commissioner's Painting, but basically it's a painting of the end of the war, when the American delegation that was going to negotiate the peace with Britain was sitting for their portrait. And the original function or purpose of the painting was they were going to capture both sides, they were going to capture the American delegation, which included Benjamin Franklin and John Adams and others, as well as the British delegation. But interestingly, for a variety of reasons, the British delegation wasn't ever able to sit for their portrait.

Tristan Duncan:

And so what they have hanging in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms is this unfinished work, but it ends up serving a wonderful diplomatic purpose, because what you see is the America delegation, and it's an opportunity to talk about what was so significant about that moment. But then it also shows you in a concrete way that the work is unfinished, there is still much history to be written. And it sparks the imagination, I think for visitors there, but also for diplomats who go there, "Look, you're part of this historical moment. And we are about to embark on some diplomacy. And this history is yet to be written, and it's up to us to continue that legacy."

Kelly Scanlon:

You've done a really great job of providing a big, broad picture of how art works with diplomacy. And the Nelson-Atkins itself has certainly played a role in opening up diplomatic channels. So I'd like to take it back, bring it closer to home here, and have you describe some of those efforts that the Nelson's been involved with.

Tristan Duncan:

Yes. So at the May 12th event, the Nelson's senior archivist, Tara Laver, is going to be talking about some of the first examples of the Nelson functioning in this diplomatic, and I think beautiful example of this is during World War II, the Nelson had some of the first cultural exchanges with Allied nations. And some of the pieces that were included, for example, were landscapes of the Normandy beaches. So residents here in the United States who had their sons fighting in the war were about to land on Normandy, on D-Day. And the Nelson hosted an event in which residents came and saw these beautiful landscapes of the Normandy beaches, and had that moment of solidarity, that even though their sons were thousands of miles away, fighting for freedom, the Nelson was creating that moment of connection and support for the Allies here in Kansas City.

Tristan Duncan:

Fast forward many years to the 1970s, and the Nelson's curator of Chinese art, Ling-en Lu, is going to talk about the Nelson's role in exhibiting Chinese art, even before President Nixon and negotiated the opening of China to the West. And those cultural exchanges in establishing the Nelson as one of the premier museums in the world on Chinese art are stepping stones to better mutual understandings between different societies, and created a trickle effect for creating a basis for mutual respect and diplomacy here in Kansas City.

Kelly Scanlon:

How did the Nelson's role in the efforts you just mentioned, during World War II, during the 1970s, when we were trying to reestablish formal communications with China, how did those efforts benefit Kansas City? Obviously we know how they benefited globally, but what did they bring back to Kansas City in particular?

Tristan Duncan:

The ability of Kansas Citians to have, as you, I think very eloquently pointed out just moments ago, have a tangible way of feeling connected to the rest of the world, and having your eyes opened up to other cultures has a direct benefit here, but it goes beyond that. For example, when corporations and businesses who are on the Business Council are trying to decide where to locate their headquarters, where to have their workforce established, they want to have a city that is sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and isn't cut off from the world. And so the Nelson plays a huge magnet, if you will, to attracting those kinds of business, innovation, entrepreneurship. And I know some of the friends and colleagues I've established over the years who were brought here by their corporations, who were coming from the East Coast and the West Coast were initially skeptical and expecting to come somewhere where culture may not be flourishing.

Tristan Duncan:

And then they were so pleasantly surprised and they said, "Kansas City is the best-kept secret." And part of that was that they fell in love with the Nelson, and they fell in love with Kansas City's role in being an incubator for creativity. And we see that developing even now, like some of the Saturday Night Live comedians come here and have their big events. And then that stimulates creativity, that then gets exported to the East Coast and West Coast and to other countries abroad. So I think there are real, tangible examples of how these kinds of cultural exchanges directly benefit Kansas City.

Kelly Scanlon:

Well, and to have an anchor like the Nelson-Atkins, it's just, I don't mean to overuse a cliche, but it's really priceless, the role it plays in being that anchor, because like attracts like, you have an institution like the Nelson, and then you get other organizations, like Center for the Performing Arts, and you get so many others that come in as well. And before you know it, we're being written up in the New York Times for the explosion of art in Kansas City, when really it's been hovering there all along.

Tristan Duncan:

Yes. And it's a tribute, to a large extent, to members of the Business Council and members of our community that do such a good job supporting the Nelson, because it just makes it that much better.

Kelly Scanlon:

Tell us a little bit about the Business Council. Obviously it's a Business Council event that we're talking about, and you are the co-chair along with Mary O'Connor of the Business Council this year, but give us a little bit more background on what it is, what it does.

Tristan Duncan:

Sure. So the Business Council is an organization of many businesses in the Kansas City community who are supportive of the arts generally, and the Nelson specifically, its effort is to generate both funding and increased membership and scholarships for making the arts more accessible to people within Kansas City and obviously abroad. So it's primarily a supporter of the arts and a supporter of making the Nelson a premier artistic institution that wields the influence to change hearts and minds, and be a springboard for innovation and creativity.

Kelly Scanlon:

We've talked about the Nelson, and you've given some great examples of how the Nelson was involved in this global relationship building through art, but can you give us some other historic examples of art, not necessarily with the Nelson's involvement, but of how art has been used globally to bring cultures together?

Tristan Duncan:

An example that comes to mind is a nice transition from the question you just asked me about the Business Council, because there's a piece that's housed within the Diplomatic Reception Rooms that was actually created by Josiah Wedgwood. You may be familiar with Wedgwood, he was the head of the business that was a merchant that created beautiful ceramics in the 18th century. He was a fierce abolitionist, he was very much against the slave trade. And he created a medallion called the Slave Medallion, and which statement on the medallion was, "Am I not a man and a brother?" And he shared that with Benjamin Franklin, who was also an abolitionist, to try to win hearts and minds to the abolitionist cause.

Tristan Duncan:

And it was supposed to be used as a form of wearable art, as a conversation piece to try an influence others who would ask about it. And Franklin was so impressed with it, he referred to the medallions as having an equal effect to the best written pamphlets. So when you ask the question, are there historic examples of art being used actually globally relationship build? It may be one of the best examples because Franklin then used it when he was a diplomat in France, spreading the word of freedom to nations beyond America and France.

Kelly Scanlon:

It's so interesting, some of the different things that go on in the background that you never learn about, but yet they have with art at its center, they just have such far-reaching implications from a historical standpoint, it's absolutely amazing. You are the chair of the Arts and Museum Law group at Shook, Hardy, and Bacon. Tell us about this new phenomena. I mean, we are hearing about it more and more in mainstream media, celebrities and athletes are buying these NFTs, but I think there's still a lot of confusion about what they really are. Can you talk with us about what they are, and are they, I guess, keeping with the theme of democratization of art, are they having a democratizing effect, or are they doing just the opposite? So tell us about the role that it plays in the context of everything else that you've talked about today.

Tristan Duncan:

Sure. So NFTs are an acronym for non-fungible tokens. And they technically are considered assets that are traded on a blockchain, that represent ownership rights in, or authenticity of a digital or real-world asset, but as you point out, they're largely unregulated. And I think you're right, they started out being a funding mechanism, or a means which would be more accessible to the people, it wouldn't be as elitist, as some funding sources or art sometimes is regarded, but the legal issues surrounding NFTs are mushrooming, and it is a little bit of an uncharted territory. For example, some originators of an NFT may reserve rights to the creators themselves. So you may get an NFT and think you own it outright, but in fact, there may be limitations on your ability to use it, display it, commercialize it, and you could trigger violations of the copyright laws if you aren't careful, because with the NFTs, there's often these, what are called electronic-type contracts that run with the NFT, they're almost analogous to a covenant running with the land.

Tristan Duncan:

Our firm actually is having a June 2nd update on the law in which we are talking about the latest cases, litigation, legislation impacting art and museum law. And some of my partners in our Intellectual Property Group are specialists in NFTs and are going to be doing an update on these copyright issues, as well as these other legal issues like cyber security and the developing regulatory scrutiny over NFTs.

Kelly Scanlon:

And is that open to the public?

Tristan Duncan:

Yes, that's open to the public.

Kelly Scanlon:

Okay. So you can go to the Shook, Hardy website and register for that event?

Tristan Duncan:

That's right. Yeah.

Kelly Scanlon:

We've talked a lot about the role the Nelson has played and that art in general throughout history has played in nurturing relationships. Where you sit on the Business Council and where you sit as the chair of the Art and Museum Law Group at Shook, Hardy, what role do you think that Kansas City, what are the opportunities that Kansas City has to continue these kinds of efforts and to nurture these kinds of relationships?

Tristan Duncan:

Well, I think history is prologue, meaning that given what a pioneering role the Nelson already played in opening up cultural exchanges going back as far as World War II, that is just a great platform for continuing that role into the future. I see the Nelson playing a more and more significant role on the world stage, because art is all about thought leadership. And this event itself that the Nelson is hosting, I think is a beautiful example of thought leadership in the sense of appreciating the role of art, especially at this moment in time when our society does seem to get so politically polarized and lacks an ability to have civic conversations about very difficult topics. I think art diplomacy is more timely than ever right now as both a place for talking about difficult topics in diplomatic ways, and finding inspiration in the artworks that are housed within museums, just the same way as diplomats to this day in the State Department use art in a similar role.

Kelly Scanlon:

Tristan, for people who are listening, who would like to learn more about art diplomacy, where can they go, can they contact someone at the museum for more information?

Tristan Duncan:

Sure. So Shannon Lindgren is the coordinator and our fearless leader. And she can be contacted at this email, it is 1, the number one, art, A-R-T@nelson-atkins.org.

Kelly Scanlon:

1art, the numeral one, 1art@nelson-atkins.org. Tristan, thank you so much for being with us on this episode of Banking on KC, and sharing your knowledge of how art diplomacy really has played a major role in major world events. We appreciate it.

Tristan Duncan:

Thank you. Happy to be with you.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, President of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Tristan Duncan for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. Art has the power to change minds. It builds bridges among people and nations, fostering mutual understanding and respect between different cultures and societies, creating a basis for diplomacy. Throughout its history, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has brought generations of Kansas Citians together through its collections and exhibits. What's lesser known is the pioneering role the Nelson has played on the world stage in fostering cultural diplomacy at pivotal times throughout the last 100 years. Art diplomacy is more important than ever in our current global environment, affording the Nelson-Atkins Museum with its collection of art from nearly every continent and culture, even greater opportunities to promote cultural understanding. As a member of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Business Council, Country Club Bank supports the museum and its use of art to make the world a more collaborative and more peaceful place. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you Kansas City. Country Club Bank, Member FDIC.

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