France’s cultural attache is leaving U.S., but his influence isn’t going anywhere


Roland Celette, the French cultural attache to the United States and director of La Maison Française, will move back to France for a position with the Ministry of Education. French Ambassador François Delattre called his departure “wrenching.” (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
August 17, 2012

For some, Roland Celette is the buoyant man about town, perched elegantly upon the bicycle he rides from gallery to gallery. For others, he’s the aesthete wading around the Phillips Collection, drawn to the disordered colors of Willem de Kooning’s “Asheville.”

But for France, Celette, 57, is a charm offensive, a strategic cultural mastermind who transformed the role of the French cultural attache to soft power broker of Reservoir Road. Having spent 11 years at his post as cultural attache and director of La Maison Française, the French Embassy’s cultural center, Celette will move back to France after decades of promoting the Gallic gospel’s trinity — arts, language and cuisine.

No one in Washington is happy about his move. French Ambassador François Delattre called Celette’s departure “wrenching.” The arts community, too, is reeling. The directors of major Washington institutions — the National Gallery of Art, the Washington National Opera, the American Film Institute — congregated last month at the French ambassador’s residence to celebrate (and commiserate) with him at one final fete.

In September, Celette will begin a professorial position with the Ministry of Education in France. It’s a fitting role for a man who claims to be an educator first, a diplomat second. He developed concert series, cinema nights, street festivals and stage productions, all with the aim of educating audiences and promoting French artists in the United States. That taste for teaching and sharing is perhaps why Celette thrived in this demanding role for decades in countries that included Japan and Cambodia.

“When I arrived here, I thought, ‘I won’t survive more than three months,’­” Celette said. “The Kennedy Center. The National Gallery of Art. I was surrounded by these institutions. . . . Then, I began to understand how they work and I made friends. And the best way to make friends is to work together, to build something.”

Despite Celette’s love of Washington— a city the nature lover appreciates for both its cultural and physical landscapes — he is eager to return to his home town of Clermont-Ferrand to be closer to his parents. “I’ve been away from my family for 30 years. It’s important for me to see more of them,” Celette said in his office at the embassy, still partially decorated with abstract paintings and souvenirs of past travels.

Still, he’ll miss all this: The sweeping view of the embassy’s wooded grounds. The thousands of friends who visit La Maison. The Baroque Concert series. The bike paths. The convenience of Georgetown University’s library.

He’ll miss playing the violin for the cardinals in his back yard.

On his desk sits a piece of calligraphy, a sketch of a sword and a heart, which was given to him by a Japanese Zen master in 1989. He’s carried it with him to each successive post, a reminder of what his job entails.

“It means ‘endurance,’­” Celette said. “Because enduring is polishing your heart like a sword,” Celette said. “It is with me all the time.”

A ‘consummate cultural diplomat’

Making friends is Celette’s forte. Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, calls him “the consummate cultural diplomat.” The Phillips Collection made him a lifetime honorary member. But his likability wasn’t a forgone conclusion in 2001, when he arrived only weeks before terrorists directed planes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Celette came to an America of metal detectors and anthrax scares, a country of red states, blue states and freedom-fry battle cries.

Fromage and champagne were not en vogue early in his term in 2003, but Celette managed to promote French culture in Washington, despite public calls for boycotts of French products after his government opposed the war in Iraq.

“Ambassador [Jean-David] Levitte responded very quickly, and he was saying to me, ‘More culture! More culture!’” Celette said. “It was hard for institutional aspects of the embassy, but we had the culture to keep the ties with the people.”

And the embassy combated the short-lived peak of anti-French sentiment skillfully. In 2004, the embassy partnered with the Kennedy Center for the four-month Festival of France, featuring the Lyon Opera Ballet and the National Symphony Orchestra. Since then, Celette’s egalitarian approach to French culture has helped introduce his country’s up-and-coming artists at a variety of U.S. venues.

Celette takes pride in producing “embassy proteges” by bringing them to the United States for performances. In 2006, he invited the celebrated Ebene Quartet to the embassy and the United States for the first time, and they now tour the country regularly. Celette also worked routinely with other embassies to promote the arts. When France held the European Union presidency in 2008, La Maison Française partnered with 27 European embassies to produce the Kids Euro Festival. Indeed, Celette’s vision is so expansive he has produced events with artists who have no connection to France, once bringing a Belgian artist for a 19th-century magic lantern show.

“France has its cultural identity, but it is better for embassies to work together,” he said. “We choose events not so much because they are French, but because they are good quality.”

“Traditionally, embassies do a lot of visual arts,” said Dana Purcarescu, deputy director of communications at the French Embassy. “Roland’s touch is that he decided to embrace performing arts, which was completely new for the embassy. He was innovating for France, as well as in D.C.”

The cultural attache is a tiresome post, since one must leave the culture he or she adores in order to obsessively promote its greatness. Cultural chiefs are not unlike missionaries, living uncomfortably between worlds, championing the achievements of their people while living among entirely different ones.

Understanding ‘this relationship’

Philip Breeden, the minister counselor for public affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, oversees the equivalent of Celette’s office, the cultural affairs officer. He says the job demands a specific type of person, one who loves people and never tires of answering questions.

“In a lot of respects, you’re a sales person, an impresario and a librarian, always explaining something,” Breeden said. “The unique aspect of the French system is that while we are career foreign service officers at the U.S. Embassy, the French sometimes take people from other parts of government or the artistic world and assign them as cultural attaches — it’s an excursion for them.”

The State Department combines the role of cultural affairs officer with the public affairs and press departments, so that public outreach, including cultural exchange programs or lectures on religious freedom and economic policy, are all part of the cultural affairs officer’s responsibilities. Since the U.S. Embassy does not have a publicly funded House of France equivalent devoted to the arts, American arts are often promoted by private foundations in Paris.

Celette learned from the American propensity for private and corporate arts philanthropy. He believes Washington taught him the value of soliciting private sponsors, particularly in a time of global austerity, when cultural budgets are being slashed at embassies around the world.

“Of course, budgets are decreasing, so you have to be more inventive and creative,” Celette said. “What I learned in this country is that if you have a good idea, you will find good partners.”

Alongside his work in the arts, Celette says that Washington taught him the depths of the French-American relationship.

“It took many years to understand what this relationship is,” Celette said. “We are really like people. We share values and a kind of optimism. And I want to give back a little of what I have learned here.”

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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