Spotlight on: Krista Bard, Honorary Consul of Lithuania in Philadelphia

Jacob Colon, for GPA -- This November, the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show will present the largest collection of Lithuanian crafts and design ever in the United States. It is no coincidence that this and several other Lithuanian cultural events are coming to Philadelphia in the fall. This Northern European nation and largest of the three Baltic states assumed the Presidency of the Council of the European Union on July 1, 2013, and Philadelphia is helping to celebrate.

According to the official website for the Lithuanian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, “The rotating Presidency is an opportunity to prove that the country is an honest and reliable partner.” For the next six months, Lithuania will preside over the creation of EU legislation and organize EU Council meetings around the globe, all while promoting itself as a nation of growth and interest.

As a part of the GlobalPhilly 2013 Exposition, the Lithuanian Festival will highlight Lithuania’s contemporary culture in a city that comprises one of the strongest Lithuanian-American Communities (LACs) in the United States. The first Lithuanian immigrants to the United States settled in Pennsylvania’s coal regions after fleeing the tsarist Russian Empire in the late 1860s. Not long after, Lithuanian coal miners headed with their families to Philadelphia for better lives.

Chicago boasts the United States’ largest LAC, but the area in the country with the most people of Lithuanian heritage per capita is New Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the mining country of Schuylkill County.

Despite the dense history Pennsylvania has with Lithuania, Krista Butvydas Bard, the Honorary Consul of the Republic of Lithuania to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, could not have imagined showcasing a Lithuanian Festival in Philadelphia when she arrived in 1980.

“If I approached these institutions in 1980 [i.e. Philadelphia Museum of Art] to do a Lithuanian exhibit or a Lithuanian concert, I honestly think they would have just looked at me cross-eyed,” Bard remarks.

Born in New Jersey to Lithuanian immigrants, Bard has done a great deal to promote Lithuanian culture in Philadelphia. Not only is she responsible for bringing the work of twenty-three Lithuanian artists (as well as the artists themselves) to feature in the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show - it took her four years of lobbying the Lithuanian government to fund this project - but she has been involved in countless cultural exchange projects between Lithuania and the City of Brotherly Love for over two decades.

Bard first traveled to Lithuania in 1988, when she brought a group of culinary journalists from the United States to the Soviet Union.

“Perestroika had just started and I said, ‘This is my chance. I want to go,’” recalls Bard of her first trip. Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika program did not give independence to Lithuania, but it yielded greater economic freedoms.

On this trip, Bard met the owners of the Stikliai Hotel, the first privately owned business in Lithuania’s capital of Vilnius. During this period, the White Dog Cafe in West Philadelphia was conducting international restaurant exchanges, so Bard partnered the two businesses. The owners and chefs of the Stikliai Hotel came to Philadelphia to work and learn from the White Dog Cafe, and the owners of the White Dog Cafe traveled to Vilnius to do the same.

Bard was appointed Honorary Consul in Pennsylvania only three years ago. All of her work and travels to Lithuania prior to 2010 were private business ventures. Bard feels that there is a fine line between consular work, which is unpaid, and business.

“If a Lithuanian company comes to town and they're interested in making ties in Philadelphia, I will help them [as a Consul]. If the company wants somebody to represent them in the United States, that becomes a business question,” she explains.

It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish the two, says Bard, but that does not hinder her consular accomplishments. In 2010, Bard brought Sharon Pinkenson, Executive Director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, to Lithuania. There, Pinkenson screened the Philadelphia-made film Night Catches Us at a festival in Vilnius. She also spoke with senior officials of Lithuania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs about providing tax incentives for filmmakers to shoot their movies in Lithuania.

“All through Lithuania, they’re gaining awareness of the culture as a creative economy,” says Bard. The international Lithuanian community has changed drastically since the country gained independence.

“Until freedom came about for the nation of Lithuania in 1990, Lithuanian Americans were about cultural preservation,” Bard explains. Her father, a Lithuanian cavalry soldier during World War Two, was exiled to Germany for opposing Soviet rule, placed in a German concentration camp as a political prisoner, and sent back to Lithuania until he was able to move with his wife to the United States. “For today’s Lithuanian generation,” Bard continues, “the question is now, ‘How do you thrive independently?’”

Lithuania joined NATO and the European Union in 2004. In 2011 and 2012, it was the fastest growing economy in the EU. Lithuania also has the fastest internet upload speed in all of Europe and the second-fastest in the world next to South Korea. The nation’s recent appointment to Presidency of the Council of the EU acknowledges, in Bard’s eyes, that Lithuania is ready to undertake a leadership role in Europe.

Future relations between Lithuania and Philadelphia are only looking up now that the Presidency is under way. In 2012, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between the Republic of Lithuania Port of Klaipeda - the northernmost ice-free port in the world - and the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority that promises to encourage trade between the two cities. Negotiations for this MOU were led by Bard herself and joined by Lithuanian Ambassador to the United States, Zygimantas Pavilionis.

Though Bard has been instrumental in improving Philadelphia - Lithuania relations, she insists that the brunt of this work has come from the Philadelphia Lithuanian-American Community.

“These are the people who really carried the torch and maintained the culture,” she says. I’m standing on their shoulders.”

For now, Bard is focused on ensuring that the Lithuanian Festival as a whole runs smoothly, especially the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show.

“This is risky and I’m working to make it successful,” she says of the Craft Show, adding, “This is an international event for Lithuanians around the world.”

For more information about the Craft Show, you may visit the PMA Craft show official website, here.     



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