“France Is About More Than Just Molière“

Marie-Monique Steckel took over as president of the French Institute Alliance Française, in New York City, 15 years ago. Having previously served as a director of political communications, president of France Telecom North America, then senior adviser to Ronald Lauder, she now runs the FIAF like a chief executive. She has turned the institute into a powerful tool for promoting the language and culture of France.
Courtesy of the French Institute Alliance Française

France-Amérique: What is the FIAF?

Marie-Monique Steckel: The FIAF is a private American not-for-profit organization tasked with promoting French culture through two cornerstone activities: language teaching and cultural events. We offer a varied program of lectures, lunches, and shows in the auditorium, the Florence Gould Hall Theater, and the Skyroom. We conduct an ongoing dialogue with artistic communities, both here in New York and throughout the word, while maintaining our specifically French identity.

What kinds of cultural activities does the FIAF organize?

We organize three festivals every year: Crossing the Line in the fall, Animation First in winter, and Tilt Kids in March. We try to offer a wide diversity of activities in order to show that France is about more than just Molière. We’re a country at the cutting edge of contemporary creativity, as evidenced in Crossing the Line. We also organize shows and movie events for a wider audience, including high-definition transmission of ballets and operas from the Opéra de Paris, as well as opportunities to meet with French celebrities such as Olivier Py, Lambert Wilson, and Isabelle Huppert.

How do you design your programming?

Our artistic directors [Lili Chopra, then Courtney Geraghty, who took over in 2018] prepare a program that mixes established artists and lesser-known names. We’ve been fortunate in being able to showcase young artists who have gone on to enjoy stellar careers, like the dancer Benjamin Millepied in 2005.

What about language teaching?

French language instruction begins for toddlers aged one, and we have a preschool program for three- and four-year-olds. In the daytime we organize a variety of workshops, and language and conversation lessons on different topics, including wine, French politics, literature, and Napoleon!

How is the FIAF funded?

We earn income from teaching but rely mainly on donations from private individuals, corporations, and foundations. My job is to find innovative ways of financing our cultural policy. For example, 25% of the funding for our cultural programming comes from our annual Trophée des Arts gala.

Is it hard to raise funds for French culture in the United States?

Some 350 billion dollars is donated every year to charitable organizations in the U.S., but cultural activities attract less funding. This is particularly true in our case, because French culture is a niche interest.

Who are your members?

More than 70% of the membership is made up of Americans and non-French New Yorkers, while between 25 and 30% are Francophones.

What challenges lie ahead?

Our theater is not necessarily active on Sundays, so I want it to become a hub for movies, with the slogan “French cinema for your weekend!”

Interview published in the March 2019 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.