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.”