Relations between the United States and Colombia go back to our days of independence, covering a period of close to two-hundred-years in which both nations have shared a common history. Colombians have traded gold, oil, tagua nuts, coffee, and flowers to Americans, and they in turn have brought start-up capital, technology, science, and culture. It is within this context and that of political and diplomatic relations between both states that the emergence, during World War II, of cultural exchange programs, such as the Committees for Inter-American Affairs (CIAA), sprung forth. These committees are the immediate antecedent of the binational centers founded in several Colombian cities, the first of which was founded in Bogotá in 1943 followed by the one in Medellín in 1947.
From that time on, the Colombo Medellín started acquiring its own dynamism and soon became a reference point in the cultural scenes of the city. Through this binational center’s mediation and with funds provided by both nations, writers, artists, scientists, jazz groups and classical music orchestras came to the city; thus contributing to the diffusion of cultural expressions unknown to or seldom experienced by the inhabitants of Medellín. The Colombo worked side-by-side with the Universidad de Antioquia, the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana, and the Universidad Nacional, as well as with the public library, Biblioteca Pública Piloto, and the Medellín Museum of Modern Art. From foundations abroad and through Colombian enterprises, the Colombo managed to acquire funds in order to carry out these cultural events and English teaching programs to help train English teachers for high schools and universities.
Until 1982, the directors of the Colombo were American citizens, appointed by the U.S. State Department, who, together with the board of directors, have decided its course. U.S. citizens and Antioqueños have had equal representation on the board of directors.
Behind this cultural project there is a group of people who have a sincere sense of belonging interested in fostering friendship and cultural exchange between both nations. Actually, they are “binational”, bilingual citizens who, through the existing programs and others that emerge thanks to their commitment and creativity, are moving closer to a multicultural proposal; both civil and socially inclusive.
Openness to change and the aforementioned proposal are personified in Paul Bardwell, one of the Colombo’s most beloved directors. Paul’s work style was stamped not only on the institution but also on the people working for it. Programs which today are at the cultural vanguard of Medellín and Colombia were strengthened and reimagined during Paul’s directorship. Such is the case of the art gallery that bears his name and is acknowledged for its emphasis on social aspects, its contemporariness and commitment to touching and transforming the everyday lives of people from all social strata, furthering the exchange of knowledge and know-how between local-native and foreign-visiting artists.
Something similar can be said about the cinema program, pioneered by movie devotees such as Luís Alberto Álvarez, Alberto Aguirre, and Orlando Mora, among others. The Colombo’s modern cinema theaters, its well-known movie magazine, Kinetoscopio, and international contacts, enable movie fans in Medellín to view and relish cinematography from all over the world.
Programs such as the cinema program and the art gallery help provide the best ambience for learning English. Throughout the Colombo’s 70 years of existence, its English teaching program has been acknowledged as the most serious, rigorous, and effective for learning English in Medellín. The English teaching program is complemented by students’ access to the Colombo library and its comprehensive collection of books in English, magazines, newspapers, and music. The library, on its way to multiculturalism, also offers books in French and German. Thus, students need only to cross the Colombo’s threshold to go out into the world.
By: Rodrigo de J. García Estrada
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