FIAF, a Francophile Incubator for 125 Years

Staying at the cutting edge of modern culture while remaining faithful to more than a century of history is the objective pursued by Tatyana Franck, who has been at the helm of the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) since March 2022. Founded 125 years ago, this New York City institution promotes the French language and Francophone culture. In her office, where contemporary works by Omar Ba, JR, Prune Nourry, and Eva Jospin lend it an air of an artist’s studio, the director spoke about the origins, current role, and future challenges of FIAF.
FIAF director Tatyana Franck. © Katie Addo

France-Amérique: The Alliance Française of New York, the original organization that became FIAF, was founded 125 years ago. What was the context in which it began?

Tatyana Franck: The Alliances Françaises network was created in the late 19th century. France had just been defeated in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War; the country was ruined and feared that German would become its official language. It was against this backdrop that actions were launched by aesthetes and art patrons to promote the French language and culture. The first Alliance Française was created in Paris in 1883, and the French community in the United States was inspired by it, founding Alliances across the country including the New York City branch in 1898. In 1911, a second institution, the Museum of French Art: French Institute of the United States, was launched. This new initiative was led by Francophile Americans who wanted to promote the arts, while the Alliance Française focused primarily on the French language. It was the merging of the two, in 1971, that created FIAF.

Would you say that this dual heritage explains the uniqueness of FIAF, which promotes both culture and language?

Absolutely. We are part of a network of more than 850 Alliances Françaises worldwide [including 106 in the United States], but we have this identity, this singular, fascinating history. For example, when I delved into the institution’s archives, I discovered that Marcel Duchamp was a librarian at the French Institute for a few months in 1915. Inaugurated in September 2023 at the entrance to our library, the new art installation by the Plonk & Replonk – Bébert collective is humorously inspired by this chapter.

Before taking the helm of FIAF, you were the director of the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland, which specializes in photography. What does managing a French cultural institution in New York City mean to you?

As someone with French, Swiss, and Belgian heritage, Francophonie is second nature to me! On a more serious note, my work to open FIAF to the entire Francophone cultural scene stems from my desire to bring all manner of talents together in New York City. We are proud to have introduced the American public to such rich, important creative worlds, including Senegalese visual artist Omar Ba, whose work we exhibited last year, and Cameroonian artist Pascale Marthine Tayou, who will be the focus of our next exhibition [from November 9, 2023, through May 30, 2024] and our new carte blanche artist at the Trophée des Arts Gala on November 15.

French culture is often accused of being too elitist and backward-looking in the United States. What is FIAF doing to tackle this cliché and make its offering more accessible?

Curiosity and innovation are two of our key values. Our goal is to showcase both classical artists and new discoveries. We also aim to be a multidisciplinary institution, promoting dance, theater, music, film, visual arts, gastronomy, fashion and, of course, literature. Our building houses a free gallery that has previously exhibited some of France’s best-known artists, including Cézanne, Rodin, and Picasso. I wanted FIAF to reconnect with this rich history, which is rooted in art, and to make it a place for discovering and sharing the wealth of artistic creation the Francophone world has to offer. We also have a library with one of the largest collections of French-language books and periodicals in the American Northeast, as well as a 400-seat theater.

FIAF’s Le Skyroom in New York City. © Brittany Buongiorno

FIAF is also renowned for its French classes. What demographic do you appeal to?

Our mission is to teach French from ages 1 to 101, in our Manhattan building and on our campus in Montclair, New Jersey. Whether students who have just arrived in New York City, passionate Francophiles from the Upper West Side, who are often more knowledgeable about our history than the French themselves, or start-uppers from Brooklyn, diverse and varied profiles are what make the FIAF network what it is. We cater to all groups, with formats ranging from preschool to evening classes.

At a time when anyone can learn a new language on their smartphone, is it important to have an approach focused on human interaction?

It is essential, just as you can’t learn a language without knowing its culture. Part of FIAF’s philosophy is combining teaching French as a foreign language with cultural events, whether animated movies, stand-up comedy shows, or musical performances.

How is such a vast program financed?

We rely heavily on the support of patrons, donors, and members, as well as income from our language center. We also organize fundraising events, starting with our annual gala in November, followed by a second gala in the spring, which focuses on art de vivre and is held at Le Bilboquet, the wonderful French restaurant on the first floor of our building on East 60th Street.

What motivates members to attend?

Building bridges. Beyond the genuine love that Americans feel for France, I believe that the quality of our offering is what keeps people coming back. This includes cutting-edge teaching programs and more public events such as the “Sunset Soirées” we hold at Le Bain, the bar and nightclub at the top of the Standard Hotel on the High Line. We organized a concert with French rapper MC Solaar in Central Park for Make Music Day in June 2022. The event was free, open to all, and brought in 4,000 people. Truly exceptional! The diversity of FIAF’s offering is what attracts the American public while promoting the many facets of French culture. Our members are eager to make discoveries and be surprised. What could be better than a bridge connecting New York City to the Francophone world?

FIAF’s 30th Trophée des Arts Gala at the Plaza Hotel, New York City, November 2022. © Anne du Chastel

What advice would you give to other Alliances Françaises, who may not be lucky enough to be somewhere as vibrant and Francophile as New York City?

We are part of the network of Alliances Françaises in the United States and around the world, and we regularly exchange best practices. Being in the heart of New York is an opportunity, but it is also a responsibility. Ours is a demanding city whose residents are always on the lookout for something new. I think that FIAF’s gift for reinvention, while anchoring itself in the cultural landscape, is what makes it such a success.

How do you measure your success?

There are many ways of measuring it. Attendance at our events is one, of course. When the venue is full and there are standing ovations at the end, that’s a sure sign of success. The number of people learning French is another. We have almost 5,000 students at the moment; doubling that number would be another success. Our dream is to develop a loyal following starting at preschool, with students coming back for Saturday classes or going to summer camp as teenagers. Ideally, they would then attend our film screenings and exhibitions for the rest of their lives – and maybe even make a donation! Today, we have almost 10,000 members, and 110,000 people visit FIAF every year.

Your annual gala, held on November 15 this year, has chosen the theme of the Château de Versailles, which is celebrating its 400th anniversary in 2023. Do the two institutions have anything to teach each other?

Of course, we don’t claim to compare ourselves with Versailles, which is an absolute masterpiece, a jewel in the crown of France’s – and humanity’s – heritage! But what Versailles does teach us is the importance of history, and the fact that an idea designed to make an impact 400 years ago can continue to inspire admiration around the world, through the generations. At FIAF, our objective in the United States is a long-term one. And, who knows? Maybe one day we will be celebrating 400 years of FIAF! I would add that, above all, FIAF and Versailles both hold themselves to exceptional standards. For 125 years, FIAF has been striving to offer an increasingly wide choice of programs and appeal to as many people as possible to establish itself as an essential part of New York’s cultural landscape. We communicate this symbol of excellence through our galas, and even more so through our teaching programs, to drive FIAF forward into an exciting new era.

What is your vision for FIAF’s future, perhaps not in four centuries, but in another 125 years from now? What challenges will it face?

In 2148, I can see FIAF at the forefront of technological innovation, artificial intelligence, and quantum physics, pushing the boundaries of language learning with its ever-growing pool of members. But I can also see FIAF based in a place where beauty, art, and contemporary creation are shared. And, more generally, somewhere we can keep laughing, singing, sharing, and understanding each other in French!

Interview published in the November 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.