In New York, a “port of entry” is created for young French artists | ET REALITY

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It was a surprising diplomatic event on New York’s Upper East Side, beginning with an auspicious “bonsoir” and ending with an unexpected “au revoir.”

Gaëtan Bruel, director of French cultural services in the United States, met with dignitaries in Villa Albertinaits headquarters, on September 20, announce additional initiatives that support greater Franco-American cultural exchange.

Bruel, with Laurent Bili, the French ambassador to the United States, and Catherine Colonna, the French foreign minister, offered a greatly expanded model for artist residencies that would allow even more French or French-speaking artists, scholars, and artisans to They will travel anywhere. in the United States or even, in one case, around the world on a French container ship.

“This France is perhaps less polished, possibly less expected, certainly more diverse, younger, more daring, surprising,” Bruel said. And he added: “Why not let artists choose where they want to go?”

In addition to the residences, initiatives include a new bronze sculpture of the Little Prince, the boy hero of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French author and illustrator. It was commissioned for the city sidewalk in front of Villa Albertine, formerly known as the Payne Whitney Mansion, on Fifth Avenue at East 78th Street.

Bruel led visitors inside the 1906 limestone villa to the Atelier on the fifth floor, where another of his initiatives had been accomplished: the reimagining of the studio of the mansion’s original chatelaine, Helen Hay Whitney (1875- 1944).

The house, which remains one of the most luxurious surviving examples of New York’s Gilded Age, was a wedding gift to Helen and her husband, William Payne Whitney, from their uncle Oliver Hazard Payne, treasurer of the Standard Oil Company. Noted (also famous) architect Stanford White designed, built and furnished the villa without budget restrictions. White died before the house was completed, but not before going on a worldwide shopping spree to fill it with paintings, antiques and architectural artifacts, including a marble statue of Cupid by Michelangelo (it was replaced in 2009 by a plaster copy when the original was sold). the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

France purchased the building in 1952 and converted Mrs. Whitney’s private study into offices for staff. Four years ago, when Mr. Bruel, at age 30, assumed his positions in New York, which included director of the Villa Albertine, he decided to reclaim Mrs. Whitney’s 700-square-foot living room overlooking Central Park, where she played the piano. She, she wrote books and poetry for children and entertained her friends.

“I realized we had a problem,” he said in an interview. “Helen Whitney had disappeared from the history of the building.”

Instead of recreating a period room, he commissioned an homage to a French architect (selected in a competition) and filled the space with contemporary French art and furniture. It will be used for conferences and dinners with artists and writers.

“Gaëtan Bruel had a vision and a program to turn French cultural services into a two-sided mirror of French culture,” said Barry Bergdoll, professor of art history at Columbia University and chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum. of Modern Art and has known Bruel for years. Bergdoll called Villa Albertine “a port of entry into the vibrant American scene for young French creatives” and praised its “visionary experimental take” on the role of cultural attaché.

Bruel, who studied history at the École Normale Supérieure for four years and never earned a degree, has forged his own path. He grew up in Montpellier, the son of two teachers who took him out of school at age 15 to go on a year-long Grand Tour on their 40-foot sailboat, sailing between Italy and Greece.

“My parents were very liberal; They said: let’s offer our children an education in a different way, in an environment of creativity,” she said.

A few years later he decided to write to Jean-Yves Le Drian, then French Defense Minister under François Hollande, about a job.

“Le Drian was curious enough to see me and hire me,” Bruel said. “I stayed with him for four years, in charge of bringing the world of cinema closer to the world of the intelligence community. “I created a film department within the French army and realized that we needed art to be integrated into all sectors of society.”

He still maintains that belief: “In a world of crisis, climate change and AI challenges, we must support artists because artists tell us new ways to confront crises.”

Bruel later worked for the French government in two other ministries: Culture and Foreign Affairs, initially as a speechwriter. Then he went to National Monuments Center as administrator of the Arc de Triomphe and the Pantheon.

In 2020, upon arriving in New York, she obtained a $1 million grant from the Florence Gould Foundation for the rehabilitation of Ms. Whitney’s studio and the creation of its new decor through a design competition.

Bruel ordered the false ceiling and staff offices to be torn down, only to reveal the original glazed terracotta tile floor (from the New York tile factory founded by Spanish architect Rafael Gustavino) and a long barrel-vaulted ceiling covered with Neo-Renaissance tiles. . reasons. He enlisted the services of a leading Louvre conservator, Cinzia Pasquali, to restore the wooden ceiling’s colorful painted decorations of masks, putti, musicians and artists, a nod to the space’s original function.

Hugo Toro, 34, a Mexican-French architect based in Paris, who won the competition to design the space, came up with an aquatic-themed decor inspired by one of Mrs. Whitney’s poems, and commissioned wavy amber glass chandeliers and hand-blown to float above their intertwined tables of lily pads.

Bruel helped Toro secure loans from Mobilier National, the French agency that stocks furniture commissioned by France’s leaders. In this case, these are unique contemporary works, considered the jewel in the crown of French design. Now Bruel’s goal is to help the designers of these pieces enter the American market, while he expands the residency program.

Eve George, an experimental French glassmaker, came to New York last year to study glass-making techniques at Brooklyn Glass and prepare sketches for a set of glass tableware inspired by the waters surrounding Manhattan.

“I thought I’d investigate and go home,” George said. “Gaëtan connected me to the Corning Museum of Glass in upstate New York, and I was able to participate in glassblowing sessions there.”

Since then, Galerie Philia, a New York design gallery, has offered to showcase George’s new glassware collection during Design Week in May. “Everything went from research mode to business mode very quickly,” he said. “The gift was not just a moment in time but the creation of a creative network between all of us. It spreads like a big family.”

Bruel has created programs for museum experts, in collaboration with Buffy Easton, executive director of the Center for Curatorial Leadership Foundation.

One of them, the Museum Series 2023, will bring 24 museum directors, all women, to the Villa Albertine to hold public dialogues about the future of museums.

Bruel also convinced an anonymous private donor to contribute $600,000 to Museum Next Generation, a program that sends young French and American curators abroad to visit their peers.

“When Gaëtan first asked to see me, I thought he was making a courtesy call, but he had a whole agenda,” Easton said.

This year launched the Albertine Dance Season, a celebration with 75 performances in 15 cities across the United States by 20 international companies and 17 artist residencies for emerging choreographers.

“Gaëtan has done more for French culture but also for culture in general by bringing together French and American artists and creators than almost anyone I know,” said Glenn D. Lowry, director of MoMA. “He is a person who knows how to turn an idea into reality. The things he imagines really happen.”

Now Bruel’s story is taking a perhaps not so surprising turn. The cultural adviser used Wednesday’s meeting to officially announce his departure for France on October 1, to become deputy chief of staff to French Education Minister Gabriel Attal, who, like Bruel, is 34 years old.

“My job is to help rethink the place of the arts in French education,” he said. “The minister’s vision is to make the arts not optional, as they are now.”

Any regrets?

He has a frustration: that France is no longer a focus of intellectual curiosity for Americans. He quotes: “The growing distance between the United States and Europe, especially France, culturally and intellectually, and how little we can do about it.”

Between 2000 and 2020, he said, “40 percent of French programs disappeared at American universities, from 500 to 340,” across everything from language to literature. “Americans are looking away from Europe,” she said wistfully, “at a time when I think we need to talk to each other more than ever.”

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