‘It Strikes Me as Excessive’: A Bob Dylan Sculpture Cost One US Embassy Almost $90,000 During the Government Shutdown

The Art in Embassies program bought the work while federal employees went weeks without pay.

The Bob Dylan artwork that caused the uproar is similar to this piece from the singer-songwriter's exhibition at the Halycon Gallery in London in 2013. Photo by Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images.
The Bob Dylan artwork that caused the uproar is similar to this piece from the singer-songwriter's exhibition at the Halycon Gallery in London in 2013. Photo by Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images.

A sculpture by Bob Dylan now lives at an American embassy in Mozambique—and not everyone is thrilled with it.

Officials from the US State Department installed the $84,375 iron work of art as part of the Art in Embassies program, which organizes 60 exhibitions per year and has put artworks by American artists at more than 200 diplomatic venues in 189 countries.

But critics allege that the State Department, which bought the work during the government shutdown, spent too excessively at a time when 800,000 federal workers weren’t getting their paychecks. According to Foreign Policy, the artwork was purchased with funds that were not subject to the shutdown.

“The State Department needs more money, but it also has to be a better steward of taxpayer money for these type of expenditures,” former US diplomat Brett Bruen told Foreign Policy. He said State Department officials should seek to save money for more crucial expenses at a time when the Trump administration has repeatedly proposed budget cuts to diplomatic missions. 

“The [department] has spent lavishly on these new embassies even as the core functions of American diplomacy have faced significant reductions,” he said. Another State Department official, who was not named, said: “it strikes me as excessive.”

According to Art in Embassies’ website, the program “creates vital cross-cultural dialogue and mutual understanding through the visual arts and dynamic artist exchanges.”

Cameron Hume, the former ambassador to Algeria and South Africa, who says he is a supporter of Art in Embassies, said that in this particular case, the money would be better spent in developmental aid to Mozambique, which is among the poorest countries in the world and is ranked 180th out of the 189 countries on the Human Development Index.

Defenders of the program consider the installation of American art a key aspect of soft diplomacy.

A state department spokeswoman defended the purchase and said all acquisitions are thoroughly researched and negotiated to the lowest-possible price, “with the taxpayer in mind.” She added that the art budget for new embassies typically constitutes around 0.5 percent of the total construction costs.

“This percentage is in line with, and in some cases lower than, other agency art budgets,” she explained, adding that even though the acquisition was finalized during the shutdown, the funding for the sculpture was approved last year.


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