Reinventing French Soft Power at Villa Albertine

France has launched a new artistic residence concept in an effort to bolster cooperation with the United States in the arts and ideas sector. Villa Albertine is following in the footsteps of historic French residences abroad – in Rome, Madrid, and Kyoto – but hopes to also reconnect with the tradition of French cultural diplomacy and renew American perspectives.
The Fallen Tree bench by Parisian designers Benjamin Graindorge and Valérie Maltaverne (YMER&MALTA) has been welcoming visitors to the cultural services of the French Embassy in New York since September 2021. © Beowulf Sheehan

“What do we want? To reinvent the French Academy in the United States.” Gaëtan Bruel, cultural counselor of the French embassy in New York and director of the brand-new Villa Albertine, is aware of the scope of this challenge. The concept was founded in Rome in 1666 by Louis XIV and designed to enable French artists to immerse themselves in the world-leading Italian culture of the time, while also spreading French culture internationally.

The French Academy, in Villa Medici atop the Pincian Hill, has since started welcoming figures from all creative fields. The Renaissance palace, complete with 17 acres of Italian gardens and spectacular views over Rome’s historical center, has hosted prestigious residents whose work has championed French culture. The notable guests have included composers (Berlioz, Bizet, Debussy), photographers (Patrick Faigenbaum, Agnès Geoffray), filmmakers (Xavier Beauvois and the Academy’s current director Sam Stourdzé), writers (Hervé Guibert, Marie Ndiaye), and painters (Ingres, Balthus, who was the director from 1961 to 1977, and Yan-Pei Ming, one of the many foreign residents).

A 23-foot statue in Japanese paper, José Lévy’s Le Veilleur (“The Watchman”) stands guard outside of Villa Kujoyama, in Kyoto. © Shimpei Hanawa

The Casa de Velázquez, opened in the Ciudad Universitaria in Madrid in 1920, and Villa Kujoyama, built on the side of Mount Higashi in Kyoto in 1992 by Japanese architect Kunio Katō, also strive to strengthen intercultural dialogues. As hotbeds of creation and vectors of soft power, these French residencies have long been an example of successful “cross-fertilization,” says Bruel. But this context has disappeared. The United States is now focused more on Asia, and a clear “imbalance of attention” has appeared between America and France. The current challenge is to transform American views of France, clear up misunderstandings – particularly about laïcité – and rehabilitate the old-fashion image of French culture. The ultimate objective? To ensure the “French message” is heard loud and clear in the U.S.

An “Outside-of-the-Box” Immersion in the American Ecosystem

“It was time to seriously revamp our concept and help fulfil the modern aspirations of creators and thinkers by providing an ideal villa for the 21st century,” says Bruel. The cultural counselor, a 32-year-old graduate of the Ecole Normale Supérieure who previously worked for the Pantheon, the Arc de Triomphe, and the French foreign ministry, rejects the idea of a single space in a continent-sized country. “No single American city can embody the full diversity of the nation’s cultural dynamics.” While acknowledging the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach, Bruel wanted to avoid creating an insular French community abroad. As a result, he has designed a network structure with headquarters in New York City combined with outposts in nine other cities. Each one will uphold leading contemporary trends, such as digitalization in San Francisco, new forms of entertainment in Los Angeles, space exploration in Houston, urgent environmental projects in Miami, the creation of urban spaces in Chicago, and the knowledge revolution in Boston.

Founded by Louis XIV in 1666, Villa Medici offers 17 acres of Italian gardens and spectacular views over Rome’s historical center. © Académie de France à Rome - Villa Médicis
One of the historic rooms at Villa Medici, in the former apartments of Cardinal Ferdinando I, with its Renaissance decor and furniture designed by Balthus in the 1960s. © Assaf Shoshan

The cultural counselor believes that it is better to offer individual support to each resident – some sixty are welcomed every season, twice as many as at the French Academy, some of which are from countries other than France – and to “project” them into the region in which they are working. Gone are the days of “the sleeping beauty,” as the residence in Rome was nicknamed in the 1980s. None of the artists will be holed up in a studio for three months. Thanks to a bespoke support package and assistance provided by the embassy’s cultural services and a network of American partners, each resident will be able to immerse themselves in their new ecosystem. The goal is for French artists and intellectuals to create a community with their American counterparts in their respective cities.

The new system should foster the residents’ professional development. This year, for example, “cinema connoisseurs will meet screenwriters from the Writers Guild and will pitch a series that we will help promote on the market,” says Bruel. “The Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen and its partner, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, will be considering the potential of virtual reality as a cultural practice. And thanks to an agreement between the Philharmonie de Paris and the St. Louis Symphony orchestra, 22-year-old conductor Stephanie Childress will have the chance to direct some ten different orchestras.”

“Relaunching the Cultural Offensive in the United States”

In parallel, other established artists and researchers will be able to pursue their work. Historian Patrick Boucheron will be creating a film to finalize his research carried out in New York, Boston, and Chicago into the similarities between the Great Plague, AIDS, and Covid. Science-fiction writer Alain Damasio will be traveling to Silicon Valley in search of “furtives,” invisible and imaginary creatures which inspired the title of his last novel. Meanwhile Susanne Eliasson and Anthony Jammes, architects from the GRAU collective, will be speaking with Chicago residents to understand the future of urban communities.

For his “Fleuve Océans” project, photographer and visual artist Nicolas Floc’h will focus on the color of the Mississippi, from its source in Minnesota to its delta in Louisiana. © Laurent Lecat/Frac Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur

“Thanks to us, they will be lifting the roof of the world; in return, they will provide us with a review of their experience,” says Bruel, referring to the think tank where the residents’ suggested projects will be assessed and developed. Lastly, ten filmmakers scattered across ten American cities will be directing a movie about their perspectives of contemporary America. The resulting collection of short films will be titled U.S.A. vus par in a nod to the film Paris vu par, created in 1965 by six New Wave directors.

For this first season, inaugurated in September 2021, Villa Albertine sent out invitations to some forty French institutions to help identify eminent creators and thinkers and to co-produce the residencies. All that remains is for the first residents to venture out into the world to express themselves, make progress, and hold high a new cultural torch. For Bruel, “this is the chance to relaunch the cultural offensive in the United States, where France is too often limited to its art de vivre, without being able to showcase the extent to which its creators can view and transform the world.”

Article published in the January 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.