“Boston Is Teeming with Francophone Students and Entrepreneurs”

At the grand old age of 75, the French Cultural Center in Boston is in fine shape. The organization moved all of its activities online during the pandemic and is using the closure to totally renovate its premises – a Victorian townhouse built in 1867. Its executive director Barbara Bouquegneau* spoke to us about the past year and the center’s reopening, planned for January 2022, with two words in mind: “community and flexibility.”
© French Cultural Center, Boston

France-Amérique: How has the pandemic affected the French Cultural Center’s activities?

Barbara Bouquegneau: We lost a lot of students at the start, especially the children taking French classes. But we acted quickly, sending out regular surveys which helped us enormously during this time. We offered more classes over a shorter period – five weeks instead of ten – and moved most of our activities online. Fewer children signed up for our summer program, but we had more enrollments from adults who were no longer able to travel. We also appealed to new Francophiles who live too far from Boston to come to our center. Today we have members and students in California, Texas, New Mexico, and even Brazil!

You also used the forced closure to launch a renovation project. Can you tell us more?

That has been the silver lining of the pandemic. The renovation work, estimated at six million dollars and largely financed by donations, began in October 2020 and will continue until January 2022. We are building new classrooms, shared spaces, and a wine cellar. We are also renovating the kitchen so we can offer a gastronomy and oenology program, and are even putting in an elevator! Meanwhile we are taking advantage of the construction work to improve the ventilation system and install cameras for filming our events and sharing them online. We are now planning a major reopening to celebrate our 75th anniversary, which was postponed by the pandemic.

© Josh Stone/French Cultural Center, Boston

How was the French Cultural Center in Boston founded?

In 1940, the local chapter of the France Forever organization opened a small library with some 500 French books donated by the consulate. At the end of the war, France Forever disbanded and a dozen members created the French Library in Boston. With 30,000 works, we are now the biggest private library of French books in the United States! In the 1950s, we were encouraged to develop as a cultural center by the French general Georges Doriot and his American wife Edna. He is considered the godfather of capital-risk, which he taught at Harvard Business School, and was one of the founders of INSEAD, a prestigious international business school just outside Paris. Edna was the president of the French Library until she died in 1978. Before her death, she arranged for the building at 53 Marlborough Street to be donated to the organization and created a support fund, which still provides us with resources today. Meanwhile, the Alliance Française de Boston & Cambridge, which was founded in 1898, joined forces with the library in 2000 and became the French Cultural Center in 2010.

What sorts of programs are you currently organizing?

Thanks to Zoom, it is very easy to invite well-known figures such as Valerie Steele, the director of the Museum at FIT in New York, or David Lebovitz, an American food blogger based in Paris. These guest appearances have been very successful. Our library, while limited, has remained open. Our members reserve their books online and come to collect them from our partner, the French restaurant La Voile and their wine bar! The chairman of our board of trustees, Steven Galante, organizes French-language guided tours of Boston’s different neighborhoods, and I am preparing a tour based on the movies filmed in our city, such as The Thomas Crown Affair, The Departed, Spotlight, and the latest Ghostbusters. We are also organizing a guided tour of the sculpture garden at the deCordova Museum on May 22. Finally, this summer we would like to host our Summer in French program in a school next to Cambridge. We are currently sounding out the parents, who are still a little hesitant. Based on the number of people who sign up, we will decide whether to continue as a physical event or move it online on June 1.

Who are your members? What sets Boston’s Francophiles and Francophones apart?

Just like all the Alliances Françaises, we welcome Americans who love French culture. Some are drawn to the City of Light, berets, and baguettes, while others prefer art, history, innovation, or the French language. Americans make up some 70% of our members. In fact, Boston and Cambridge have the largest concentration of academic institutions in the whole country, headed up by Harvard and MIT. This attracts many tech, IT, and biomedical start-ups from France. The city is teeming with Francophone students and researchers, and the Kendall Square neighborhood in Cambridge is growing on a daily basis! Expat academics and entrepreneurs, who often only stay for a few years, appreciate the resources we can offer, including the library and networking opportunities.

How did a Belgian woman such as yourself come to live in Boston?

I studied civil and electrical engineering at the Polytechnic School in Mons, Belgium, but cinema was always my greatest passion. Alongside my studies, I was heavily involved with local festivals. Among others, I worked on the Mons International Love Film Festival and the Namur Film Festival. But I always wanted to learn to make movies, and so I began a Master’s degree in film production at Boston University in 1994. The following year, I became a member of the French Library to meet the Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski, who had come to present his Three Colors trilogy. I later accepted a job as a projectionist, on September 27, 1997 – the same day as the French Community Holiday in Belgium! After that, I occupied just about every position in the organization until I became the director in 2016. I know the center like the back of my hand!

*Barbara Bouquegneau is also vice-president of the Federation of Alliances Françaises in the United States.

French Cultural Center
53 Marlborough Street
Boston, MA 02116