Arts & Entertainment

New Exhibit Explores Rural Influence on Modern American Art

A new exhibition takes a look at how American artists found inspiration in rural landscapes during an era of modernist art that was more closely associated with cities.


“Cross Country: The Power of Place in American Art, 1915-1950” opens Sunday at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. It features about 200 works from more than 80 artists, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Grant Wood, Jacob Lawrence and Andrew Wyeth. It is divided into five geographical regions – the South, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Northeast and the West – based on the part of the country featured in the works.


“The thing that they all share is that these are all works that reflect an artist thinking about or being moved by a specific location,” High curator of American art Stephanie Heydt said.


While American artists still traveled to Europe for instruction and inspiration in the first half of the 20th century, many also began to focus on things that were new to them closer to home, Heydt said. They looked outside major cities and found pastoral settings with barns and rolling hills, industrialism creeping into previously pristine spaces, dramatic vistas and scenes of regular people living their everyday lives.


“We often think of modernity being sparked by modern urban spaces,” Heydt said. “But the story should also include the rural spaces, the places that artists retreated to.”


She cited four main reasons for the artists’ travel: relaxation and escape from the bustle of the urban environment; a sense of community found in artist colonies and art schools; government or foundation grants or commissions from commercial customers; curiosity about unfamiliar places and a desire to experience the unknown.


Thomas Hart Benton, usually associated with the Midwest, traveled to the South and captures a weathered old tobacco farmer teaching a slight young girl about tobacco leaves in “Tobacco Sorters,” a commission for a tobacco company that was ultimately rejected. Another of his pieces, “The Cliffs,” shows sculpted-looking cliffs rising over crashing waves on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.


“Opening Day at Talladega College,” painted by Hale Woodruff in 1942, is one of a series of six murals for the historically black college’s library that traces the slave’s journey to freedom. The bright colors lend vibrancy to the scenes of former slaves registering for classes. The other five murals are on display in another part of the High to complement this exhibition.


In “Black Hunter,” Andrew Wyeth paints an old friend of his in a rural field. The painting, drawn from the artist’s personal memories, has a haunting quality, Heydt noted. It hangs near works by his father N.C. Wyeth and sister Carolyn Wyeth.


O’Keeffe’s “Red Canna” captures the canna lilies that caught the artist’s eye when she visited the family home in Lake George, New York, of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, whose photographs are on display nearby. The painting, from 1919, gives a preview of her bright floral paintings with blended colors that have become so popular.


Maynard Dixon’s “Red Butte with Mountain Men,” a stunning large-scale painting from 1935, shows men on horseback in the shadow of spectacular rock formations. The warm colors radiate from the canvas like sunlight reflecting from the mesas.


A large-scale print of Ansel Adams’ iconic “Yosemite Valley from Inspiration Point, Winter, Yosemite National Park” captures the majesty of the Western landscape in a way that is so familiar but still breathtaking.


The exhibition is a collaboration between the High and the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and expands on a recent Brandywine show called “Rural Modern: American Art Beyond the City.”

Arts & Entertainment

Obama Hires Agency for Speaking Gigs, Lawyers for Book Deals

Former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama announced Friday they have picked the prestigious agency that represents Bill Clinton, Mia Farrow and others to handle their post-White House speaking gigs.


The Harry Walker Agency will represent both Obamas for speaking appearances, said Kevin Lewis, a spokesman for the former president. It’s the same firm that recently resumed representing Hillary Clinton for future speeches and handled the speeches she gave for big sums after stepping down as secretary of state in 2013.


Former House Speaker John Boehner, pilot Sully Sullenberger and former White House press secretary Josh Earnest are all represented by the Harry Walker Agency.


Obama and the former first lady have also tapped attorneys Robert Barnett and Deneen Howell to handle their contracts for books that both plan to write, Lewis said. Barnett, known as a “Washington super-lawyer,” has represented Obama on past book deals along with other top politicians.

The Obamas haven’t yet set dates to release their books or announced any scheduled speeches. The couple is living in Washington while developing the presidential library and center that will eventually be built in Chicago.

Obama, who has written two previous best-sellers, has retained his chief White House speechwriter Cody Keenan to help him craft his next book. Keith Urbahn, a literary agent at Javelin DC who’s handled best-sellers for other political figures, said Obama can expect to fetch an advance of more than $20 million.


Vice President Joe Biden and wife, Jill Biden, said Friday they’ve hired Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency, which counts Brad Pitt and Will Smith among its clients, to represent them, but they haven’t said what projects that might entail. The Biden Foundation, launched this month to promote Biden’s policy goals, also said it was hiring five staffers.

Economy & business

Bolivia Fights Locust Plague Threatening Corn, Sorghum Harvests

Bolivian farmers and government officials are fighting a locust plague threatening corn and sorghum harvests, just as agricultural areas were starting to recover from the South American country’s worst drought in a quarter century.

The locusts, first reported in late January in Bolivia’s eastern grains belt, have affected around 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) of crops and 500 producers, said Vicente Gutierrez, president of a corn and sorghum producers group.

Government authorities and farmers were preparing on Friday to fumigate 300 hectares of crops, with the ultimate goal of spraying some 17,000 hectares and preventing the plague from spreading and endangering the food supply.

“This fight will not be short,” said Reinaldo Diaz, president of Bolivia’s oilseed and wheat producers’ association. “We’re trying to identify where the eggs are, where the nymphs are – those are the initial stages of the plague and where we can control it most efficiently.”

The plague follows a severe drought in Bolivia that prompted controversial water rationing, conflicts between miners and farmers over aquifer use, and slashed agricultural harvests, requiring a sharp increase in imports.

Recent rains have relieved Santa Cruz and inspired optimism for this year’s crops although drought continues to afflict the main city of La Paz.

For the moment, the 1,000 hectares affected by locusts represent only a small fraction of the 100,000 hectares planted with grains in Santa Cruz department.

Bolivia, normally self-sufficient in grain production, had to import more than 100,000 tonnes of corn worth $21 million in 2016, largely from Argentina, according to the private Bolivian Institute of Foreign Trade. The country also imported 2,000 tons of sorghum worth $5 million.

Argentina, the world’s No. 3 corn exporter whose output has been rising since corn export taxes were slashed in late 2015, had sent experts to assist the fumigation effort, Bolivian producers said.

“They have lived with this since 1920; we are learning how to combat this problem,” Bolivia’s President Evo Morales said after flying over affected areas.

Producers in Santa Cruz, one of Bolivia’s wealthiest areas, have for years lobbied the government to lift export restrictions and liberalize regulations on the use of genetically-modified seeds, which they say will help produce crops that are resistant to plagues and adverse climate events.

Economy & business

Promised Trump Tax Plan Boosts Stocks

U.S. stocks “melted up” Friday as the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, the Dow Jones industrial average, Nasdaq Composite Index and Russell 2000 Index posted all-time closing highs on continued upward momentum from President Donald Trump, who promised a “phenomenal” announcement about his tax plan in the next two to three weeks.

Industrial stocks, led by defense/aerospace companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin, outperformed on the week. Crude oil also helped lead the charge amid output cuts by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, which in turn boosted energy stocks.

The momentum looks as if it could continue. “Broad market sentiment is showing some signs of excessive optimism, which could act as a near-term contrarian warning sign,” analysts at LPL Financial said in a research report. “These are only near-term concerns, though, as we still aren’t seeing the type of over-the-top sentiment seen at major market peaks.”

Policy reforms

One of the bigger challenges with the Trump agenda has been predicting how his administration will prioritize policy efforts. Of particular interest are the competing priorities of health care overhaul and tax reform, especially with the run-up in equities. Former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. President Gary Cohn is leading the effort to craft the tax overhaul, according to a White House official.

Trading week ahead

The Federal Reserve moves back into the spotlight with a slew of speakers on the circuit, including Chair Janet Yellen, who will give her semiannual testimony to the House Senate Banking Committee on Wednesday at 10 a.m. EST.

Key economic data include the January Consumer Price Index (CPI), Retail Sales, Leading Indicators, Housing Starts, and other industrial and manufacturing reports. The earnings calendar is starting to wind down, with mostly cable and technology names reporting.

Economy & business

DRC Cancels Illegal Logging Licenses

The government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo says it is canceling two illegal logging licenses following an investigation by the environmental action group Greenpeace.

The Greenpeace probe found that in September 2016, then-Environment Minister Robert Bopolo Mbongeza authorized the two logging concessions, which covered more than 4,000 square kilometers. One permit went to an adviser of President Joseph Kabila, and the other went to a parliamentarian from the ruling party.

But the DRC introduced a moratorium on logging concessions in 2002 in a bid to protect the world’s second-largest remaining rainforest and the livelihoods of the 40 million people who depend on it. The forest covers much of northern DRC, as well as parts of five other countries in the Congo Basin.

Irene Wabiwa Betoko, forest campaign manager at Greenpeace Africa, told VOA that her organization discovered these two illegal awards and asked for a clarification from the government.

Atis Kabongo Kalonji, who was appointed environment minister in December as part of a DRC government reshuffle, insists his ministry is remedying the situation.

Kalonji told VOA on Wednesday that in response to Greenpeace’s revelations, he could inform the Congolese public and the forestry operators that these licenses were now canceled. He said he would soon sign a ministerial order confirming the cancellations and would put in place a mechanism to prevent future violations.

Greenpeace says judicial action against offenders is necessary to stop recurring violations of the moratorium. A month before awarding the licenses in September 2016, Bopolo had canceled three other licenses that his predecessor awarded in 2015. Those, too, were uncovered by a Greenpeace investigation.

Greenpeace also is urging suspension of a new $200 million program to protect the rainforest, the Central African Forest Initiative, until the group can complete a comprehensive analysis of the activities being funded. Wabiwa said Greenpeace wanted to make sure donors’ money would not add to the chaos that exists in the forestry sector. At the moment, she said, the necessary safeguards are not in place.

Kabongo told VOA that the DRC’s international partners could rest assured his ministry would not permit illegality.

Economy & business

Egyptian Economy Making Slow, Tentative Progress

The Egyptian economy has been showing signs of a slow, but painful recovery since a $12 billion loan from the World Bank, late last year, followed by a number of economic reforms, including the free float of the national currency. Tourism appears to be picking up and foreign investors are starting to buy Egyptian treasury bills once again.

One of Cairo’s major, five-star tourist hotels was bustling with visitors on a recent day, following months of slow performance.


Tourism accounts for nearly 12 percent of Egypt’s GDP and has always been a key barometer of the country’s economic health.  Sporadic terror attacks, two airline crashes and the accidental bombing of a busload of tourists by army helicopters had put a damper on tourism for months.

Overall, Finance Minister Amr El-Garhy sounded optimistic during a recent press conference to discuss the country’s economic indicators for 2016.

He stressed that the government’s operating deficit in 2016 decreased slightly and looks to be headed lower for 2017.

“Deficits,” El-Garhy said, “put pressure on the state, adding to inflation and causing depreciation of the national currency.”

“By lowering deficits,” he adds, “Egypt will have less debt, decreasing the need for borrowing.”

El-Garhy said consumers may be feeling pinched by recent price increases, but would see an improvement in a year and an even greater improvement over the next three years.

Frustrated shoppers

A popular Egyptian TV program, however, reports less than favorable reaction in the street to rising prices and sporadic shortages of food staples. Shoppers at a suburban Cairo vegetable market expressed frustration.

An irate housewife says cooking oil and cooking gas have gone up in price, while a woman next to her says everything is becoming exponentially more expensive.

In southern Egypt, a disgruntled consumer set fire to a government supply depot last month, but most Egyptians have taken the situation in stride.

Egypt making progress

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi, who has faced grumbling over recent price increases, drew applause as he addressed a crowd of young people, recently, arguing Egypt is making slow progress.

The president said development requires a collective consciousness and understanding of the threats facing the nation, in order to set things straight. He maintains that Egypt is making progress, even if people aren’t happy about everything.

Sisi added he is doing his best to help meet the aspirations of Egypt’s 90 million citizens, especially its young people.

“A young man, today,” the president insists, “will see major progress in the next 10 years.”

Investors show confidence

Foreign investors are expressing growing confidence in Egypt’s economy, as analyst Khaled Abou Haif told Egyptian TV. He said traders have been seeing very strong demand for (Egyptian) treasury bills, indicating confidence in the economy by foreign investors and helping meet the country’s foreign currency needs.

Egypt’s key stock market indices have also risen, despite the simultaneous increase in the value of the dollar, after the government allowed the Egyptian pound to float freely.

Other variables, like Suez Canal revenues, have some economists worried, given the conflict in Yemen, which overlooks the strategic Bab el Mandab strait, the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea waterways. Lower oil prices may also have caused a decrease in the number of ships transiting the canal, according to some observers.

Economy & business

London’s Spy Industry Thrives in Private Sector

Private intelligence companies are part of a booming business in London and the British government complains it is having trouble retaining talented agents who are being drawn by high salaries and more growth opportunities in a blossoming industry estimated to be worth $19 billion.


“Our mission is to fill a gap of knowledge or information in any situation,” said Patrick Grayson, founder and CEO of GPW, a respected mid-sized London intelligence firm. “There’s always something people should or could know in addition to what they do know. Our job is to answer that question. To fill that gap in knowledge.”  


With legal firms as their key clients, Gray’s company has set up shop on London’s Chancery Lane in the heart of the city’s legal district, where solicitors and judges dressed in the traditional court garb that includes white wigs and black robes can be seen walking between the courts and their offices in the medieval Inner Temple area.   


The business of private investigations was once regarded as less than respectable and downmarket – that of the stereotypical private eye in a trench coat under a streetlight; but industry observers note the private investigators of today have been pulled from the gutter and into the boardroom, where they take their places next to lawyers and accountants.


The man some in the industry credit as the inventor of the modern private corporate investigations sector is former prosecutor Jules Kroll, a New Yorker who in 1986 started Kroll investigations. The company’s revenues now top $1 billion.


It is at Kroll’s company that Grayson and other big names in the field learned the trade and brought it to London, where the city’s strategic geographic location between the United States and Asia and its long-established history as a center of espionage made it the right locale for the new industry.


Crowded playing field

Industry observers say the playing field has become crowded, mostly with small firms of as few as three people; but the sector continues to grow as big corporations expand operations overseas and seek to minimize risks in environments they do not fully understand.   


“Large companies draw on us because they don’t have the investigative capacity internally and where that capacity has its work more recently is in the international context. Our firm understands cultural sensitivities,” says Nicholas Connon, director of Quintel Intelligence, a London firm.  


Clients include companies taking new clients and investing in emerging markets of Africa, eastern Europe, and east Asia that are unfamiliar territory and where things are sometimes not what they appear.


“We’re actually getting lots of requests, with the basic question, ‘can you tell me what’s going on,’” said Alex Bomberg of International Intelligence, which works in faraway places like India. “Even if you look at the books of the company, it’s not necessarily going to give you the full picture.”   


Among their services, companies like Bomberg’s provide pattern of life studies that give a picture of the people in a company that can be different from the image portrayed on its website, and insight on how a company is really doing. “A swan might look great above the water line, but how people are living their lifestyle within that company can be a different kind of fish,” Bomberg said.


Usually not James Bond stuff

The work of corporate intelligence agents is more often not the exciting stuff of James Bond movies.  It can involve combing through individuals’ credit histories and analyzing personal habits – work that can include going through people’s trash. “We’re talking about what car they drive, what’s going into their dust bin, where their wives are shopping,” said Bomberg.


Although the modern industry had its start in New York, London is a breeding ground for firms, and one where they naturally thrive. The city has for centuries been a center of espionage and the British are credited with being in the spying business perhaps longer than anyone else.   


One reason is the nation’s history as a great colonial power.

“Britain has been a very fertile place for information, intelligence gathering, and that has to do with our position in the globe, the British tradition of exploring foreign parts and relying on accurate information to expand its interests,” said Grayson.


Getting that accurate information requires tools that are reminiscent of the movies. Gear commonly used include jamming equipment to ensure that boardroom discussions are not being recorded and bug-searching devices.


$1,000 an hour

Intelligence company officials and operatives interviewed agreed there is no piece of equipment that beats the human eyeball, and the knowledge and experience to know what to look for.


Observers say the British government faces a brain drain as agents employed by police forces, the military and civilian intelligence agencies leave their jobs for better paying positions in private sector firms that often bill at rates of more than $1,000 an hour.


“If they’ve been working for a government agency for a long time, the draw is money. There’s not a lot of money working for the government. Even the pensions are not great these days. You could quite easily double that overnight,” Bomberg said.   


It is not only former intelligence officers who seek out firms. Recruits include financial advisers with backgrounds that include things like experience in property or construction, lawyers, and sometimes academics.


When the companies recruit people, they essentially buy experience.


“We recruit among whoever is the best,” said Connon. “We draw our expertise across the board to get into the specific situation.”

Silicon Valley & Technology

Google Chromebooks on Rise

The Google Chromebook, a type of stripped-down laptop, isn’t a practical mobile device for many people – mostly because it basically turns into an expensive paperweight whenever it can’t find a Wi-Fi connection.

Yet Chromebooks have defied expectations and made major inroads in an unexpected environment – U.S. schools.


In retrospect, that shouldn’t be too surprising. Chromebooks are cheap and easy to manage, making them popular with budget-constrained schools with limited tech-support staff. And Wi-Fi is now common enough in U.S. schools and homes to make an internet-dependent device practical for students.


Google doesn’t want to stop there. It’s releasing new models in partnership with Samsung that are designed to appeal to a broader range of consumers. They have several tablet-like features, including a stylus, touch controls and a 360-degree hinge that allows you to turn the screen faceup. One starts selling Sunday for $449; a more powerful version comes out in April for $100 more.


Google and its manufacturing partners are trying to shed the Chromebook’s perception as underperforming budget devices. But even with premium models, expanding beyond U.S. schools won’t be easy.


Chromebooks get schooled


For personal computers and tablets, Chromebook’s share of the U.S. education market was 49 percent last year, up from 40 percent in 2015 and 9 percent in 2013, according to IDC figures released this week.


But education accounts for just 14 percent of the 110 million devices shipped in the U.S. last year – and Chromebooks make up just 9 percent of that broader total. Their numbers are also low abroad, even in schools.


The Chromebook’s popularity in U.S. education is also largely limited to grades K-12, analysts say. Macs and Windows laptops are still dominant on college campuses.


Rough start


Chromebooks use a lightweight operating system designed to get people online faster, without having to wait around for the computer to start up. Much of the heavy lifting on Chromebooks gets done on Google’s remote servers, so Chromebooks themselves don’t need fast chips or lots of storage.


Early on, though, that made Chromebooks seem cheap and underpowered, which “soured consumer expectations right off the bat,” IDC analyst Linn Huang said.

Online storage for photos and documents online was much less common in 2011 when Chromebooks launched, so their limited local storage was initially unappealing. And the few apps available for Chromebooks didn’t work offline, at least at the time.


Differing needs


But what constrains consumers can actually be liberating in education. Most kids don’t need laptops on the bus or other locations where they can’t connect to Wi-Fi. And they don’t miss business software like Microsoft Office; Google’s online apps for documents and spreadsheets do just fine for homework.


“What surprised us was how quickly it took off in education,” said Kan Liu, who oversees Chromebooks at Google.


Apple’s iPad was hot at the time, but Google sold the Chromebook on convenience. They’re easier for classrooms to share; just sign in with a Google account, and a student’s apps and documents instantly appear. Teachers also have online tools to lock down what apps and sites students can use.


And with models available for less than $200, schools can get a few Chromebooks for the price of an iPad or a rival laptop.

“It allows us to put more devices in students’ hands,” said Aaron Slutsky, chief technology officer for McDowell County Schools in North Carolina.


Far from universal


But Chromebook’s success story in schools is largely an American one, and it’s likely to stay that way. Gartner analyst Mikako Kitagawa notes that Chromebooks are useless in China because the device depends on Google services that aren’t available there. And in emerging countries, where a budget laptop would be ideal, she said internet access isn’t reliable enough.


Even in the U.S., the iPad is better for many creative tasks such as recording and editing movies. Students studying engineering, robotics and graphics won’t be able to use Chromebooks to run the kind of specialized software that’s available for Macs and Windows laptops.


“But that’s not needed for 98 percent of our students,” said Tracy Dabbs, coordinator of technology and innovation at the Burlington-Edison School District near Seattle.


Many school districts limit Apple and Windows computers for the students who specifically need them, then provide Chromebooks for the rest. McDowell County, for instance, has 5,500 Chromebooks, 1,200 iPads – and only 100 Macs and 200 Windows PCs.


Rivals stage comeback


Last year, Apple gave iPads in schools some Chromebook-like features unavailable to the general public. That includes ways to let multiple people use a single tablet and management tools for tech-support staff. A new Classroom app lets teachers control what apps students run and track their progress.


Apple also provides classroom tools for teachers and students. Free e-books offer teachers step-by-step guides on using iPad apps and curriculum suggestions for everyday subjects. A separate app lets kids learn programming using the same language developers use to build iPad apps.


Meanwhile, Microsoft announced last month new online apps and management tools for schools, along with Windows PCs priced similarly to Chromebooks.


Beyond schools


Huang said some businesses are giving Chromebooks a second look, especially in retail, banking and other settings where people share computers.


But in many offices, the lack of business software such as Office is a major hurdle. Google’s alternative lacks many advanced capabilities found in Office, and habits are hard to change.


Google is trying to make Chromebooks more palatable by letting them run Android apps designed for phones and tablets. It’s testing this capability on a handful of Chromebook models, including the new ones from Samsung. That makes it possible to install Office, Adobe Photoshop and many apps on a Chromebook, though these tablet versions have limited features compared with versions for Macs or Windows laptops.