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100 Years of Romanian Cultural Presence in the United States: An Overview

Updated: Sep 13, 2021

Cultural, academic and scientific relations form an important dimension of the Strategic Partnership between Romania and the United States as well as a dynamic, creative, and diverse field of the Romanian American bilateral relationship.

Culture had provided, even before actual diplomatic relations were established in 1880, a solid foundation of mutual trust and knowledge. Translations from American authors, such as Benjamin Franklin, James Fenimore Cooper or Harriet Beecher Stowe, had circulated in the Romanian Principalities since the early 19th century, and in Transylvania even before that, giving an avid audience a first glimpse into the New World. In the United States, with the emergence of the first Romanian American communities towards the end of the 19th century, culture, arts, folklore, and traditions became not only an identity anchor, but also the fertile ground for transatlantic cultural discoveries and exchanges, going both ways. Sharing a similar experience to other groups of immigrants, the associations, the press, the religious and secular holidays of Romanian Americans, more and more numerous from the beginning of the 20th century, constituted not only a way of expressing the Romanian identity within the mosaic of the American social fabric but also a vehicle for adaptation, integration, and inter-community communication.

The first conference tours of important Romanian cultural personalities, such as the influential journalist and politician Dr. Nicolae Lupu (1922), the writer and navigator Jean Bart (1926), the great historian Nicolae Iorga (1930), were cultural diplomacy programs in their own right. They were organized and financed by a number of Romanian-American associations and personalities, including of Jewish origin, which had grown stronger and wealthier. Although short, the American sojourn of painter Costin Petrescu (1919-20) left a strong impression among the American art lovers of the time through his portraits of the New York elite and the urban landscapes depicting the hectic life of the great city. Jean de Paleologue (Jean Paleologu), who had emigrated to America in the early 20th century, made a name for himself in the interwar decades as an illustrator and graphic artist, equally respected on both sides of the Atlantic.

As the Romanian diplomatic presence strengthened after the First World War, Romanian American cultural relations became a part of the political, economic and academic mix that would constitute, for a long time, the formula of transatlantic cooperation. From then on, in addition to the conference tours of important cultural figures, the highly publicized, although nominally private, trips of the members of the Royal Family of Romania would offer a dynamic and sometimes even spectacular reality to the Romanian cultural presence in the United States. The month-long visit of Queen Marie (1926) could count as the first great Romanian public and cultural diplomacy event in the United States, prepared and carried out by Romanian diplomats with significant support from American benefactors. Also in the 1920s, the first anthologies of translations from Romanian literature were printed thanks to the efforts of the enthusiastic poet and professor at Columbia University, Leon Feraru. Romania’s participation at the 1939 New York World's Fair was the most ambitious initiative of national and cultural promotion the country had ever undertaken before World War II in terms of size, quality of the pavilions, designed by architects G.M. Cantacuzino and Octav Doicescu, and the high profile of the delegates, including legendary singer Maria Tănase, the great sculptor Constantin Brâncuși and the famous musician George Enescu.

The end of the 1930s brought to the forefront of American musical life the sopranos Pia Igy, nicknamed the "Romanian nightingale", and Stella Roman, who triumphed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The number of Romanian students in top American universities increased during this time and among those who crossed the Atlantic were future distinguished intellectuals like Petru Comarnescu, with a Ph.D. at the University of Southern California, who would later become the very founder of American Studies in Romania, and sociologist Cristina Avghi Galitzi, a member of the groundbreaking Gusti School of cultural anthropology and folklore and author of the most important academic study, at origin a doctoral dissertation at Columbia University, about the integration of the early Romanian communities in American society.

Also during the interwar period, Constantin Brâncuși, one of the most influential sculptors of the 20th century, became one of the most admired modern artists in America, with extended collections hosted by major museums like the MoMA, the Guggenheim and Philadelphia Museum of Art. In the great concert halls of New York, Boston or Philadelphia, George Enescu reconfirmed, with each concert, his status as an international superstar of classical music. Thanks to his first books published in English, Peter Neagoe became the first Romanian to have a true literary career in the United States. Another notable name of that time was portrait painter and philologist Elie Cristo-Loveanu (Ilie Cristoloveanu), professor of Romanian at Columbia University between 1942 and 1964 and author of the portraits of Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Herbert Hoover along with the first monumental textbook of the Romanian language and culture, The Romanian Language (1962). Artists like Dimitrie Berea, known especially as the portrait painter of Hollywood stars, or the engraver Alexandru Seceni also contributed to Romanian prestige in the USA in the first half of the 20th century.

In the first decades after the Second World War, outside the realm of official relations the Romanian cultural presence in the United States was illustrated, among others, by the conductor Ionel Perlea, a disciple of George Enescu and professor at the Manhattan School of Music, by the sculptor and Brâncuși’s close collaborator, Constantin Antonovici, by the great writer and historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, professor at Chicago University, by the poet and academic Ștefan Baciu from the University of Honolulu or by Stephen Fisher-Galați, professor at the University of Arizona, a towering figure of Eastern European studies. In Hollywood, A-listers like director Jean Negulesco and stars like Edward G. Robinson and Lauren Bacall could claim a Romanian background. Born in Romania, Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps and Nobel Prize winner (1986), was just beginning a long humanitarian career devoted to keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive and defending human dignity and peace everywhere in the world. For their part, great figures of the Romanian political emigration, such as Princess Ileana (Mother Alexandra), daughter of Queen Marie, diplomat and esthetician Matila Ghyka, diplomat Grigore Gafencu, former Romanian Foreign Minister, Mihail Fărcășanu, the leader of the young Romanian liberals, provided intellectual and journalistic contributions to American cultural life in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Not even the imposition of the communist regime in Romania, in 1947, succeeded in suppressing the circulation of Romanian values ​​in the United States. After a relatively short Stalinist interlude, marked by international isolation and strict alignment with Soviet directives, official Romanian American cultural relations resumed in the late 1950s, timidly at first through folk exhibitions rather devoid of ideological overtones. From the mid-1960s, they were followed by increasingly extensive and ambitious cultural exchanges as Romania began to adopt an independent foreign policy course from the Soviet Union. During that time, Petru Comarnescu returned to the United States as curator of the traveling exhibition dedicated to the painter Ion Țuculescu (1969), a notable cultural diplomacy initiative. The privileged Romanian American relationship was illustrated by important diplomatic events: the opening of The Romanian Library in New York (1969), the forerunner of the current Romanian Cultural Institute, and the establishment of The "Nicolae Iorga" Chair at Columbia University (1971), as well as other Romanian language lectorates as points of cultural irradiation.

In the 1970s, transatlantic relations reached an outstanding intensity in all their dimensions, including in the cultural field. Academic exchanges covered most disciplines, from humanities to science and engineering. Romanian authors, such as writers Romulus Rusan and Ana Blandiana, literary critic Radu Enescu and historian Constantin C. Giurescu, the first head of the “Iorga” Chair at Columbia University, to name but a few, zig-zagged the United States and, back home, penned a true library of American travelogues, full of curiosity and sympathy towards American ways. Almost every year, important Romanian writers were accepted in the exclusive Iowa Writers’ Workshop literary residence at Iowa University. The number of translations of history and fiction books from Romanian significantly increased as did the translations of American literature in Romania. Influential researchers and professors, such as the comparatist and literary historian Virgil Nemoianu from the Catholic University of America, the literary theorist and cultural historian Matei Călinescu from Indiana University Bloomington, the philologist Sanda Golopenția from Brown University (and her husband, the anthropologist Constantin Eretescu) or the historian Radu Florescu from Boston College, the author of a famous best-seller dedicated to Vlad Țepeș, enjoyed respectable academic careers. The revolutionary research in cell biology brought George Emil Palade of Yale University the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine (1974). Romanian films were screened more and more often in American cinemas. Great theater directors, like Liviu Ciulei and Andrei Șerban, gained prominent positions in American theatrical institutions as well as in academia, as professors at Yale and Columbia Universities, respectively. Great musicians, such as the pianist Radu Lupu, later a Grammy Award winner (1995), and the soprano Ileana Cotrubaș or the baritone Ludovic Spiess enjoyed an enthusiastic reception in America. Painter Vlaicu Ionescu became quite famous in America and beyond not so much through his art but more so as a commentator of the mystical texts of Nostradamus.

The cooling of political relations between communist Romania and the United States at the beginning of the 1980s inevitably frustrated the development of cultural exchanges, which could no longer match the effervescence of the previous decade. But, despite all adversities, some Romanian names, coming mainly from the expatriate community, managed to distinguish themselves in the academic world, such as the historian of religion and essayist, Ioan Petru Culianu, Eliade's successor at the University of Chicago, Marcel Cornis-Pope, the Americanist and comparative literature scholar, professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, or the linguist Vera Călin. In literature, Nina Cassian and Dorin Tudoran asserted themselves not only as important writers but also as necessary moral compasses. Norman Manea's writings, drawing from his own painful experiences and highlighting the criminal, inhumane nature of both the Nazi and communist systems, earned their author widespread recognition and praise. An exceptional poet as well as an irresistible media personality, Andrei Codrescu established himself as one of the most admired Romanian-Americans. Sociologist Radu Ioanid meticulously documented the tragedy of Romanian Jews and prepared to take over as one of the directors of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Throughout the 20th century, several Romanian artists, writers, and intellectuals of Jewish origin, some already mentioned, enhanced the presence of Romanian culture in the United States. One should mention, in this respect, the editor and lexicographer Philip Axelrad, the author of one of the first bilingual dictionaries aiming to help Romanians starting anew in America overcome their language barriers (1919); Feliciu Vexler, professor of Romanian language and culture at Columbia University in the first decade of the 20th century; Eli Marcus Ravage (b. Marcu Revici), author of a famous book, An American in the Making, which for years stood as one of the main titles on the American high school student’s reading list; Ileana Sonnabend (Ileana Schapira-Sonnabend), painter, engraver and illustrator, who introduced artists like Christo to the New York art circles and was instrumental in promoting Andy Warhol and Roy Liechtenstein in Europe through her Paris gallery; as well as her more famous husband, Saul Steinberg, a world-class illustrator and engraver working for some of America's most influential postwar publications.

The fall of the communist regime in 1989 ushered in the most fertile and expansive period of transatlantic cultural relations. With the accelerated development of political, military and diplomatic relations culminating in the signing of The Strategic Partnership between Romania and the United States (1997), in which academic exchanges, science and technology were explicitly listed as enhanced areas of collaboration, the Romanian cultural imprint in the United States reached an unprecedented scope and diversity.

Thousands of Romanian students and researchers were trained in American universities since the early 1990s, many of them as part of official and private American assistance programs for the democratic reconstruction of Romania. In the great American universities, professors of Romanian origin, such as the comparatist, Thomas Pavel, from Princeton University, the political scientist, Vladimir Tismăneanu, from Maryland University, the legal scholar, Dumitru Radu Popa, from New York University, the comparatist, Mihai Spăriosu, from Georgia State University, the Romanic languages and literatures specialist, Maria Manoliu-Manea, from the University of California (Davis), the violin professor and violinist, Șerban Lupu, from the University of Illinois, claimed more and more prominent positions. This was the decade when writer, screenwriter and director Petru Popescu amassed his greatest literary accolades. The roles performed in American productions, especially at the Metropolitan Opera, brought soprano Angela Gheorghiu an almost incomparable fame. The poet Valery Oișteanu, the literary historian, Ștefan Stoenescu, from Cornell University or the sculptor Patriciu Mateescu also enjoyed notable careers. Romanian theaters and orchestras that crossed the Atlantic during this time were received with enthusiasm.

Yet Romania’s greatest cultural diplomacy achievement of the first post-communist decade was the ample program presented at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., which was set up by the Romanian Cultural Foundation with wide Romanian and American institutional support. For a few summer weeks in 1999, a colorful Romanian village, animated by exhibitions of traditional art, demonstrations of ancient crafts, concerts and lectures, was erected in the heart of the Mall around a wooden Maramureș church, dismantled in Romania and rebuilt shingle by shingle on American soil. In 2006, also under the auspices of the Romanian Cultural Institute, another important cultural promotion program was launched, the Romanian Film Festival in New York (later continued independently by the Film ETC association).

In recent years, Romanian cultural projects have proliferated from New York to San Diego and from Seattle to Miami. Romania's diplomatic and consular missions in the United States (the Embassy in Washington, the General Consulates in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami) and the growing number of honorary consulates have constantly expanded the area of ​​Romanian-American cultural relations. The Romanian Cultural Institute in New York, the main vector of Romanian cultural diplomacy in the US, has become the main co-partner and co-sponsor of most cultural promotion initiatives carried out in the United States. In academia, Romanians have become more and more numerous. Professors of Romanian origin, such as Adrian Bejan from Duke University (engineering), Maria Bucur from Indiana University Bloomington (history), Ileana Orlich from Arizona State University (philology), Aurelian Crăiuțiu from Indiana University Bloomington (political philosophy), Georgiana Gălățeanu-Fârnoagă from the University of California Los Angeles (Romanian language), Irina Livezeanu from the University of Pittsburgh (Jewish studies), Costică Brădățan from Texas Tech University (philosophy), Cristian Moraru from the University of North Carolina (literary theory) Daniela Rus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (robotics), Dan-Virgil Voiculescu of the University of Berkeley (mathematics), Virgil Gligor of Carnegie Mellon University (computer science), Sergiu Pasca of Stanford University (neurology and biology) or writer and mathematician Bogdan Suceavă from California State University Fullerton, to name but a few, have produced important contributions in the sciences and humanities. In addition to New York, Romanian film festivals have been organized in Seattle, Washington, San Francisco (Stanford) and Chicago. The participation of Romanian artists at great American Art Fairs (like Armory Show, Art Basel Miami or NADA) has become quite frequent, while the programs of many film festivals (like New York Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, South East European Film Festival in Los Angeles and others) have featured Romanian productions at almost every edition. In Hollywood, director of photography Mihai Mălaimare Jr. and actor Sebastian Stan, one of the biggest contemporary American and international stars, have been part of major cinematic projects. The fall of the U.S.S.R., the Romanian Revolution, the war in Iraq and the Haitian humanitarian catastrophe have found in photojournalist Viorel Florescu a most astute visual chronicler, rightly rewarded with two prestigious Pulitzer Prizes. For several years, curator Florica Zaharia headed the Department of Textile Conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, before returning to Romania to establish a unique institution, the Textile Museum. In literature and the theater, writers Carmen Firan, Ioana Ieronim, Doina Uricariu, Mihaela Moscaliuc, Claudia Serea, Carmen Bugan, Domnica Rădulescu, playwrights and professors Saviana Stănescu and Cătălina Florescu, theater directors Cosmin Chivu and Ana Mărgineanu and documentary filmmaker and professor Mona Nicoară have been not only very active, but increasingly visible. Alexandra Nechita, nicknamed "the little Picasso", has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the world of fine arts. Sasha Meret's ingenious works have found their place in prominent American galleries.

One of the most impactful promotion projects of the past years has been the 2019 American tour of the National Symphony Orchestra of Romania, conducted by Cristian Măcelaru, the Romanian-American director of the Philadelphia Philharmonic, and featuring the great American jazz musician Wynton Marsalis as soloist. Also in music, the soprano Anita Hartig, a star of the Metropolitan Opera, the violinist Irina Mureșanu, professor at Maryland University, the conductor Valentin Radu, the pianist Angela Drăghicescu, the pianist Matei Varga and the jazz pianist Lucian Ban have kept busy with countless concerts and recordings.

This overview in no way can exhaust the rich tapestry of Romanian events and personalities that form Romanian American cultural relations. The Romanian cultural presences in the United States throughout the 20th century until today have been much more numerous, and other notable names and achievements can be added to this inevitably partial account.

Photo 1: "Constantin Brancusi Sculpture" at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2019 (source: MoMA)

Photo 2: The Romanian Pavilion at the 1939 New York Fair

Photo 3: "Gateways to Romania" at the 1999 Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (source: Smithsonian)

Photo 4: National Symphony Orchestra of Romania at Lincoln Center (New York) in 2019, performing together with Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Wynton Marsalis, under the baton of Cristian Măcelaru (photo credit: Virgil Oprina)


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