In New York, creating a 'Port of Entry' for young French artists

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In New York, creating a 'Port of Entry' for young French artists
The Helen Hay Whitney studio, called the Atelier, was designed by Hugo Toro, who won a competition to reimagine the fifth-floor salon with a water-themed décor: lily pad tables, a white carved stone fireplace with lily pads and green fireplace surround meant to resemble a rippling stream. As French cultural adviser in New York, Gaëtan Bruel created artist residencies in the United States, museum curator exchanges and reimagined a poet’s studio. (William Laird via The New York Times)

by Wendy Moonan

NEW YORK, NY.- It was a surprising diplomatic event on New York’s Upper East Side — one that started with an auspicious “bonsoir,” and ended with an unexpected “au revoir.”

Gaëtan Bruel, the director of French cultural services in the United States, gathered with dignitaries at Villa Albertine, its headquarters, on Sept. 20, to announce additional initiatives supporting increased French American cultural exchange.

Bruel, with Laurent Bili, the French ambassador to the United States, and Catherine Colonna, the French foreign minister, offered up a greatly expanded model for artists’ residencies that would let even more French or French-speaking artists, scholars and artisans 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. He added, “Why not let the artists choose where they want to go?”

In addition to the residencies, initiatives include a new bronze sculpture of the Little Prince, the boy-hero of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a French author and illustrator. It was commissioned for the city sidewalk in front of the 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 achieved: the reimagination of the studio of the mansion’s original chatelaine, Helen Hay Whitney (1875-1944).

The house, which remains one of the most lavish extant examples from New York’s Gilded Age, was a wedding gift to Helen and her husband, William Payne Whitney, from his uncle Oliver Hazard Payne, the treasurer of the Standard Oil Co. The prominent (also notorious) architect Stanford White had designed, built and furnished the villa with no budgetary restraints. White died before the house was finished but not before he went on a global shopping spree to fill it with paintings, antiques, architectural artifacts — including a marble Michelangelo statue of Cupid (it was replaced in 2009 by a plaster copy when the original went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

France bought the building in 1952 and turned Helen Whitney’s private studio into staff offices. Four years ago, when Bruel, at age 30, took up his posts in New York — which include being director of Villa Albertine — he decided to bring back Whitney’s 700-square-foot salon overlooking Central Park, where she played the piano, wrote children’s books and poetry, and entertained her friends.

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

Rather than recreate a period room, he commissioned a tribute to her by 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 for making the French cultural services into a double-faced mirror of French culture,” said Barry Bergdoll, a professor of art history at Columbia University who was a 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 his “visionary experimental view” of the role of cultural attaché.

Bruel, who studied history at the École Normale Supérieure for four years and never earned a degree, nevertheless has forged his own path. He grew up in Montpellier, the son of two teachers who took him out of school at age 15 for a yearlong 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,” he said.

A few years later he decided to write Jean-Yves Le Drian, then France’s minister of defense under President 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, charged with bringing the world of cinema to the world of the intelligence community. I created a cinema department within the French army and realized that we needed art to be integrated into all parts of society.”

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

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

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

Bruel ordered the demolition of the false ceiling and staff offices, only to discover the original glazed terra cotta tile floor (by a New York tile manufactury founded by Spanish architect Rafael Gustavino), and a long barrel-vault ceiling covered with neo-Renaissance motifs. He enlisted the services of a top Louvre conservator, Cinzia Pasquali, to restore the wood ceiling’s colorful painted decorations with masks, putti, musicians and artists — a nod to the original function of the space.

Hugo Toro, 34, a Mexican French architect based in Paris, who won the competition to design the space, devised a water-themed décor inspired by one of Whitney’s poems, and commissioned handblown wavy amber glass chandeliers to float over his interlocking lily pad tables.

Bruel helped Toro arrange loans from Mobilier National, the French agency which stores furniture commissioned by the leaders of France. In this case, they are one-of-a-kind contemporary works, considered to be crown jewels of French design. Now Bruel’s goal is to help interior designers enter the U.S. market, as he expands the residency program.

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

“I thought I would do research and go home,” George said. “Gaëtan made a connection for me with the Corning Museum of Glass in upstate New York, and I was able to participate in glassblowing sessions there.”

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

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

One, the 2023 Museum Series, is bringing 24 museum directors, all women, to Villa Albertine for public dialogues on the future of museums.

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

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

This year, he inaugurated the Albertine Dance Season, a celebration with 75 performances in 15 cities in the United States by 20 international companies and 17 artist residencies for up-and-coming choreographers.

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

Now Bruel’s story is taking a perhaps not so surprising turn. The cultural adviser used the Sept. 20 gathering to officially announce his departure for France on Oct. 1, to become deputy chief of staff for France’s education minister, Gabriel Attal, who, like Bruel, is 34.

“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 one frustration: That France is no longer a focus of intellectual curiosity for Americans. He cites, ‘‘The growing distance between the U.S. and Europe, notably France, on a cultural and intellectual level — and how little we can do about it.”

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

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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