Art, According to the Immigration Services

By Pauline Eiferman


hat is art? For centuries, philosophers and critics have debated the question. Andy Warhol pushed the boundaries of art when he showed off his Campbell’s soup cans paintings in the 1960s. A decade later, the writer Tom Wolfe raised a furor when he deemed a modern sculpture “the turd in the plaza.”

Dictionaries today describe art as a visual object or experience, created by a person with skill or imagination. But for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency responsible for delivering visas to foreign artists, it takes more than that to be an artist.

The Sri Lankan pop star M.I.A., for example, had sold 190,000 copies of her first album in the United States when she applied for an artist visa in 2007. Her request was denied, so she had to record her second album in the UK.

So what exactly is art, according to the U.S. Immigration Services? “That’s a very interesting question,” said an officer when contacted. “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

According to the agency’s website, “a person must possess extraordinary abilities or have demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement, and have been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements.” These are the qualities required in order to obtain an O-1 visa, which allows artists to work in the U.S. for a period of up to three years.

No one else was available to comment.

But if extraordinary abilities can be hard to prove, recognition is quite the opposite. Alejandro Filippa, a lawyer specializing in immigration, said that two things were significant in the application for an artist visa: having received press and having good letters of recommendation. The words “talent,” “skills” and “imagination” weren’t mentioned once. But he did say that the artist visa was nicknamed “the celebrity visa.”

“Immigration evaluators are not experts in art,” he said. “Applicants must submit a portfolio to prove that they are doing something artistic, but what really sets them apart is their notoriety.”

According to the U.S. Department of State, 9,368 O-1 visas were issued in 2009, and 1,721 were refused – nearly one in five.

The application process is less than unclear. Artist advocates have spoken against the system, which they say has become cumbersome and expensive since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The League of American Orchestras, for example, criticized the many last-minute changes and cancellations due to visa problems.

In response, the Citizenship and Immigration Services pledged to speed up and improve its visa operation. But there is a long way to go.

It took Erik Schjerven, 30, a year and three months to complete his O-1 application. The Norwegian soap opera actor received his visa in June, after compiling a 170-page long application and pay legal fees of more than $5,000.

Among the documents required for an O-1: more than five mentions of the applicant in the media, at least 10 reference letters (by famous people if possible), a sponsor, proof of a full bank account, a professional plan for the coming three year, and a portfolio.

Schjerven said he spent nights at the national library in Oslo to research articles written about him, which he then had to get translated from Norwegian to English.

One of the most important aspects of the O-1 is the sponsor or employer. Applications are often denied when immigration examiners aren’t convinced that a proper professional relationship exists between the applicant and the sponsor, said Filippa. “This is particularly difficult for artists, as they are traditionally self-employed or freelancers.”

Schjerven called all of his contacts to find the perfect target, until he met a famous producer who agreed. “I think that really helped my application,” he said. “I owe a lot to him.”

“The immigration offices favor people that they’ve heard of,” said Melanie Crean, a professor of media design at Parsons the New School for Design in New York City. “It’s understandable. If you knew nothing about art, then you’d do the same. So museums, famous schools, celebrities, big non-profits are definitely valued for sponsors.”

Crean said that she had written dozens of recommendations letters for students and friends. “Computer programmers, computer graphic artists, interactive design artists… Everyone I’ve written for has gotten a visa.”

But not everyone is lucky enough to meet famous producers or teachers from recognized schools. An Australian artist who declined to give her name because it could jeopardize her visa application said that the process reinforced the hierarchy of the art world.

“You have to be acknowledged by recognized art institutions, you need press from mainstream or expert media, you need to have shows in places they’ll have heard of,” she said. “It’s not actually about the art.”

Most of the young woman’s work comes in the shape of performance pieces and body art, like piercings. She doesn’t have a traditional portfolio or showreel, which might make it more difficult for her than if she were a visual artist or an actress.

This November, she quietly celebrated her two years in the country. She entered the U.S. on a tourist visa, which lets visitors stay in the country for three months. She traveled to France a day before her three months were up, so that she could re-enter the U.S. on a new tourist visa. She did it again three months later. By that point, she knew it would be hard pulling it off a third time.

The 25-year-old started applying for an O-1 visa five months ago. She said that so far, it had already cost her $4,000 in legal fees and hours of work every week.

“I couldn’t do it without a lawyer,” she said, after explaining she nearly had a mental breakdown because of all the work required. “A lawyer knows how to approach the case, and everything you need to design the perfect application.”

Being white, a woman, and from Australia is definitely helpful, she said. But she was nervous. “My art is abstract and often questions the establishment,” she said. “I don’t know if it can hurt me. I’d like to think not, but maybe that’s naïve.”

Whatever their specialty, O-1 applicants have many constraints. One of them is the fact that they have to be employed by their original sponsor during their entire stay in the U.S. Another is that they can only practice the discipline that they’ve applied for.

That’s why Schjerven applied as an actor/script consultant/director/copywriter/linguistics coach. His sponsor works in a small Manhattan production company, where Schjerven reads scripts and assists him with odd jobs around the office. He will only be able to work as an actor if it’s through his sponsor.

“I miss going to castings,” he said, adding he couldn’t legally have an agent. “Working in this country is like an exclusive nightclub that you’re not a member of,” he said. “You just really want to get in.”

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