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Why Did the State Department Just Spend $84,375 on a Sculpture by Bob Dylan?

The purchase represents the cultural aspects of U.S. diplomacy for some and lavish and wasteful spending for others.

A mural of songwriter Bob Dylan by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota on Oct. 15, 2016. (Stephen Maturen/AFP/Getty Images)
A mural of songwriter Bob Dylan by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota on Oct. 15, 2016. (Stephen Maturen/AFP/Getty Images)

In the middle of what would become the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, the State Department processed an unusual expense: a piece of iron artwork that stands about 4 feet high.

The cost? $84,375. The artist? The American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.

The sculpture, paid for with federal funding not subject to the shutdown, raises questions about how and where the State Department spends money at a time when the Trump administration is pushing to slash funds for American diplomacy and trying to curb overall federal government spending.

Dylan’s ironwork was purchased under the department’s Art in Embassies program, which places American art in U.S. diplomatic outposts worldwide to showcase U.S. culture and soft power. It will be displayed at the U.S. Embassy in Mozambique, according to a State Department spokeswoman.

Proponents of the program view art and culture as important tools of diplomacy. Placing artwork at embassies offers a way to engage with local artists and communities across the world at a relatively small price—compared with the overall cost of running an embassy.

But for critics, the Dylan sculpture illustrates the way the State Department mismanages money, particularly on new embassies, even as it struggles to fund its core functions. The Trump administration has repeatedly proposed massive budget cuts for Foggy Bottom (though many of those cuts have been batted away by Congress in federal spending bills).

President Donald Trump himself has criticized ballooning costs for embassy construction abroad—though thus far he has spared the artwork. In early 2018, he railed against the $1 billion price tag of the new U.S. Embassy in London, blaming former President Barack Obama for getting a “bad deal” on the move. (The decision to move the embassy was made during the George W. Bush administration.) In New York, the State Department drew public scrutiny last year for spending $52,701 on “customized and mechanized curtains” at the residence of the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a decision that was made under the Obama administration.

“The State Department needs more money, but it also has to be a better steward of taxpayer money for these type of expenditures,” said Brett Bruen, a former U.S. diplomat who heads the public affairs firm Global Situation Room, when asked about the Dylan sculpture. “The [department] has spent lavishly on these new embassies even as the core functions of American diplomacy have faced significant reductions.”

Ironwork double gates crafted by Bob Dylan are shown at Halcyon Gallery for an exhibition of his metalwork in London on Nov. 14, 2013. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images for Halcyon Gallery)

“It strikes me as excessive,” said a current State Department official of the Dylan sculpture purchase. The official was not authorized to speak on the record.

The State Department spokeswoman told Foreign Policy that the department purchases art after extensive research and price negotiation, “all of it with the taxpayer in mind.” She said the budget for art at new U.S. embassies and consulates around the world is 0.5 percent of the total construction costs. “This percentage is in line with, and in some cases lower than, other agency art budgets,” the spokeswoman said.

She stressed that though the purchase was authorized on Jan. 2, amid the government shutdown that created hardships for State Department employees and contractors, the funding for the purchase came from a prior year.

The purchase of Dylan’s sculpture was publicized on USASpending.gov, the U.S. government’s source for public information on federal spending. (The contract details erroneously list the “primary place of performance” for the art as the United Kingdom.) It has not been previously reported.

Dylan is best known for his singing and songwriting, for which he won the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature. His ironworks “relate to themes of art made in Mozambique,” the department spokeswoman said, explaining why the sculpture will be displayed at the U.S. Embassy in the southern African country.

A song that appeared on Dylan’s 1976 album Desire is titled “Mozambique,” though there was no suggestion that fact had anything to do with the placement of the sculpture.

Ultimately, the embassies “provide a platform for projecting U.S. culture abroad, and it’s a good thing for us to promote American artists abroad,” the spokeswoman said.

The Art in Embassies program is a partnership between the government and the private sector. The government buys the artwork or borrows it from museums, galleries, or private collectors for displays and exhibitions.

Bruen, the former diplomat, also criticized the department for putting artwork on display inside the U.S. embassies, nearly all of which are surrounded by security perimeters with limited public access. “If the issue is that American artwork should be seen and experienced in these countries, it needs to go outside of the hard line. It needs to be on display where the most number of people could appreciate it,” he said.

Cameron Hume, another former career diplomat who served as the ambassador to Algeria and South Africa, expressed shock at the price tag. He said that while he supports the Art in Embassies program, he believes the money could be better spent on development or aid in Mozambique, which has some of the worst health indicators of any country in Africa, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Hume and another current U.S. official also questioned why Dylan, with a reported net worth of some $200 million, couldn’t donate the piece instead of having taxpayers foot the bill.

Representatives of Dylan did not respond to FP’s request for comment.

Robbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

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