Security comes at price for arts fans

Visa problems force cancellation of performances

Baltimore Vivat!

February 17, 2003|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

In unexpected ways, the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks have been affecting what audiences in Maryland and across the nation are seeing - and not seeing - on stage.

The steady influx of foreign artists and performers that historically has enriched the cultural scene in the United States has slowed drastically since last May, when tough new measures for screening visitors were put into place as part of the Homeland Security Act.

The most recent casualty is Ten Theatre of Moscow's avant-garde interpretation of Swan Lake, which was to be part of Vivat! St. Petersburg, the three-week citywide celebration of Russian arts and culture. At the last minute, Theatre Project, which was to be host of the event, canceled two performances scheduled for tomorrow and Wednesday after a performer was unable to obtain her visa in time for the U.S. trip.

Last October, similar visa problems caused the cancellation of two concerts: the Artemis String Quartet from Germany had been scheduled to perform at the Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts, and the Katona Twins, a Hungarian duo, was to have appeared at the Baltimore Classical Guitar Society.

The result was a customer relations nightmare.

"It was very distressing," says Lisa Kirkpatrick, publicity director of the Baltimore Classical Guitar Society. "We didn't have phone numbers for our ticket holders, and some people came from out of state the night of the concert. We had to tell them, `I'm really sorry, but they aren't performing.' People were very upset, and we couldn't blame them."

Nor is the problem restricted to Maryland. There have been news reports of canceled concerts and exhibits from California to Chicago to New Hampshire. Visa problems have hampered artists as diverse as a Cuban jazz pianist, an all-female Japanese ensemble of singers and dancers, a Welsh harpist and an Iranian filmmaker.

In May, when the Homeland Security Act took effect, the State Department was prohibited from issuing visas to citizens from seven countries until officials had consulted with all the appropriate U.S. security agencies. In theory, the paperwork logjam only should effect residents of those nations on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List: Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Cuba and North Korea. In reality, artists even from such non-hostile nations as Germany and Russia also have been getting extra scrutiny.

"Most of the time, they're not being denied visas," said State Department spokesman Stuart Patt. "It's just taking longer for their visas to be approved."

Before the Homeland Security Act, it typically took about a month for a performer to obtain a visa. Since May, it's taken an average of three or four months. Sometimes, the event date has passed before the paperwork has been processed, and the larger the group, the greater the likelihood that there will be a problem. In the case of Ten Theatre of Moscow, five performers received their visas on time. The sixth did not - but the show couldn't go on without her.

"It's not going to happen to every applicant, but it's going to happen to quite a few," Patt says. "It does cause some inconvenience, but it's all in the interest of national security.

Kirkpatrick, the publicity director for the Guitar Society, said the delay also cost her tiny nonprofit group money.

It cost them lost advertising dollars because they promoted a concert for the Katona Twins that never occurred. It cost them ticket sales and the refunds they issued on request. Although the Society found a substitute for the Twins on three weeks notice, that musician, guitarist Jason Vieaux, had performed locally just two years previously, so interest in his performance was not as keen as it might have been otherwise.

But the true cost, Kirkpatrick says, may be more subtle and more damaging: an inadvertent cultural isolationism.

"We are so worried about this happening again that we have actually wondered if we should restrict our guest artists to the United States or Canada," she says. "It's impacting our thoughts as to what programming we'll offer in the future."

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