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France Honors Elizabeth Smith

On May 26, Gaëtan Bruel, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, awarded Elizabeth Smith with the insignia of Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Elizabeth Smith is an art historian and curator who has helped American audiences connect with French artists across decades, and as Executive Director of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, has supported broad access to the visual arts. 

Ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to all of you, here in Albertine, in New York, or throughout the world, on Zoom,

It is my honor and a great pleasure to be with you today to honor Ms. Elizabeth Smith with the insignia of Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Dear Elizabeth Smith,

To open this exciting evening, I would like to begin with one of the key figures who has accompanied you throughout your career and who is a source of inspiration for many of us here, Helen Frankenthaler.

Three years ago, at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, the exhibition “The Water Lilies. American Abstract Painting and the Last Monet” shed light on the legacy of the Master Claude Monet as the pioneer of Abstract Painting and a source of inspiration to numerous American painters, unique in their audacity, and founders of a movement which today is considered a key moment in American art of the 20th century. The work of the renowned artist Helen Frankenthaler was part of this exhibition. During a stay in Paris in 1956, this artist, whom you know so well, had discovered the famous Water Lilies while visiting the Orangerie with critic Clement Greenburg. Struck by her encounter with these works, Frankenthaler started an artistic dialogue with Monet’s paintings, and we can admire the way she drew inspiration, for her own landscapes, from the highly sensory chromatic stimuli, which is characteristic of Monet.

Throughout your career you have similarly created cultural bridges between Europe and the United States. It started early, with a precocious taste for culture and international relationships. I like to think that your first trip to France at the age of 12 with your grandfather, igniting in you a passion for the country and its people, was the formative experience that drew you toward this international perspective. You first earned a BA in Area Studies with a concentration in the language, literature, and history of Spain, followed by an MA in Art History focused on 19th and 20th century European and American Painting and Sculpture.

After graduating, you held teaching positions in Bennington, Chicago, and Los Angeles while beginning to work in museums. In 1983 you became Assistant Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. From that moment on, you focused on developing the museum’s activity on an international level by organizing several travelling exhibitions, across the US and beyond. In 1999, you became Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago where you once again pursued the goal of making artists known to an international audience through travelling exhibitions. From 2005 to 2009, you also worked as Deputy Director for Programs, taking a lead role in the MCA’s visual arts, performance, and education divisions in addition to your chief curatorial duties. We especially remember the exhibition, “Tropicalia: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture”, that you and your team devoted to Dominique Gonzalez Foerster, a French artist living in Paris and Rio de Janeiro, who was largely unknown to the American public and art world at that time.

You also continued to conduct research. You contributed to many books and, in 2000, authored the book Techno Architecture, followed two years later by Case Study Houses: The Complete Case Study House Program from 1945-1966. This program contributed to shaping the American architectural landscape of the 1950-1960’s by producing new types of housing, at once innovative, economical and aesthetic – and from then on, iconic.

In 2010, you were appointed Executive Director in Curatorial Affairs of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada. Thanks to the work you led with your team, this institution saw its reputation grow, as demonstrated by two major exhibitions: “Abstract Expressionist New York”, organized in partnership with the Museum of Modern Art, and “Ai Weiwei: According to What?”, a retrospective dedicated to this eminent figure of Chinese contemporary art. Your many curatorial projects have often taken you to France. Such is the scope of your passion that, along with securing loans for the Art Gallery of Ontario while in Albi, you remember an extraordinary cassoulet from that trip.

In 2013, you joined the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation as Executive Director. This Foundation was originally designed to keep the artist’s memory alive through exhibitions, research programs, and publications; it now also aims to promote a broad access to the visual arts, in all their diversity. Driven by your desire to build synergies with the world of contemporary art, you established strategic partnerships that have strengthened the foundation’s place in the world of contemporary art while bestowing it with unparalleled international stature. As Director of the Foundation, you notably worked with the Pompidou Center on a show of Women in Abstraction, which just opened in Paris and focuses on these artists who were sometimes unjustly eclipsed from the history of art, while they played a unique role in the history of abstraction.

In addition to the several projects with Parisian galleries and museums aimed at reintegrating the figure of Helen Frankenthaler into the cultural landscape of the 1950 and ‘60’s, the Foundation launched a partnership in 2016 with the Cultural Services of the French Embassy and its partner FACE Foundation around Etant donnés, the Cultural Services’ program dedicated to contemporary art. Your support of this longstanding and renowned grantmaking program has allowed it to flourish these last few years, in particular at a turning point in its history in 2016.

We gratefully acknowledge the financial and moral support that you continue to provide through your unwavering commitment to facilitating exchange among artists, curators, and institutions across the Atlantic. We at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy are delighted to have a partner who represents - in the words of journalist and producer Patricia Zohn - the very best kind of guardian of the arts: in her choice of subjects, she ranges wide and deep; she also prizes accessibility and outreach.

In addition to our privileged relationship, we also wish to salute your vision of a diverse, inclusive art world and society. Paradoxically, in the context of an unprecedented public health crisis with major economic implications, where supporting art may appear more than ever as superfluous, you have on the contrary re-asserted the vital character of a commitment to the arts. In this regard, you seem to embody the spirit of Helen Frankenthaler who believed that adversity could generate new ideas if one can “have the wherewithal, intelligence, and energy to recognize it and do something with it."

Alongside Clifford Ross, Frederick J. Iseman, Lise Motherwell, and Michael Hecht, Directors of the Foundation, you have deployed a wide range of comprehensive initiatives with exceptional speed and efficiency, showing us how a profound crisis may also pave the way to innovative forms of solidarity and philanthropy, dedicated not only to artists and cultural institutions in immediate difficulty, but also to non-salaried workers of the art world and local communities. You worked alongside the Foundation for Contemporary Arts COVID-19 Relief Fund, with Artist Relief, with the Tri-State Relief Fund to Support Non-Salaried Workers in the Visual Arts, and with the Hamptons Arts Network Artist Relief Fund. Shoulder-to-shoulder with these entities in their efforts to bring timely relief to American cultural players, the Frankenthaler Foundation has already granted, since October 2020, a total of 1.5 million dollars to emerging artists and local exhibition spaces.

This unprecedented commitment during the pandemic exemplifies the conviction of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation that artists and art play a key role in addressing the challenges of our current world and those that lie ahead. If the situation we have been immersed in for over a year is first and foremost a public health and economic crisis, it has surely highlighted the interconnectedness of other challenges, notably social and environmental, to be faced together for the good of all. Clearly demonstrating this understanding, at the beginning of 2021 the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation launched the Frankenthaler Climate Initiative in partnership with Rocky Mountain Institute and Sustainable Museums to support the development of the use of renewable energy in museums. A pioneering initiative hailed by the American Alliance of Museums, generously endowed with funds to cover several years of work, it has already been a source of inspiration and hope for American arts institutions seeking both advice and technical or financial resources to implement sustainable practices. We commend this pilot initiative, which comes at such a crucial moment.

The Foundation has also reaffirmed its social commitment to diversity through the Frankenthaler Digital Initiative, benefitting the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture for the Digital Curation Initiative, a program that aims to make a large collection of paintings, photographs, and artifacts celebrating Black culture and its history available online.

The Foundation has also asserted the social value of art through actions in the academic arena. To this end, in 2020 you and your team developed the ArtsConnection Teen Reviewers and Critics (TRaC), a program that offers NYC teenagers from diverse backgrounds opportunities for museum visits and meetings with professionals in the art world. This program is perfectly complemented by the ArtTable Fellowship, a program for students and young graduates generally underrepresented in the cultural arena to have meaningful experiences and mentorship to aid their transition from academic to professional careers. This wide range of initiatives, of which I have provided only a few examples here, highlights the incredible dynamism of the work of you and your team at the Foundation. Here at the Cultural Services, and I know I speak on behalf of all your friends and partners of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, we are truly impressed.

I would like to end this speech, which was too long (but dear Elizabeth, it’s entirely your fault, as I had too many great achievements to acknowledge!), I would like to end with a few words from Helen Frankenthaler, which seem aligned with the philosophy of the Foundation: “Anything is possible. It's all about risks, deliberate risks.” I must add that this a philosophy we are currently exploring at the Cultural Services, as we are about to launch the biggest initiative we have ever undertaken to support artistic exchange among emerging creators! Helen Frankenthaler never ceases to be a source of inspiration!

Dear Elizabeth Smith, for your unwavering support for arts and culture institutions that are at the heart of international exchange and your unfailing commitment to fostering

diverse perspectives and a more inclusive world, it is my pleasure to bestow upon you the insignia of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Chère Elizabeth Smith, au nom de la Ministre de la Culture, je vous fais Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres.