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France honors Marina Kellen French

Dear Marina Kellen French, Distinguished guests, 

It is a privilege and a great pleasure for me to preside over this Legion of Honor ceremony, a very special occasion, indeed, as we honor a friend of France and a champion of the arts and culture, a leader whose impact can be felt across the Atlantic, by expert practitioners in the pursuit of new artistic knowledge and preservation, as well as by the public through unparalleled access to the arts. All this, dear Marina French, thanks to the dedication you have demonstrated over the decades of your commitment to the arts and your innovative support of the creativity and cultural heritage dear to you and to the French Republic.  

Before I begin the time-honored tradition of making remarks before the conferral of the medal, I would like to invite M. Olivier Gabet, Director of Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris and a dear friend of Ms. French, who is currently visiting New York as a Villa Albertine resident, to say a few words.  

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[Olivier Gabet highlighted with great warmth and appreciation the longstanding ties between Marina Kellen French and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs]

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Thank you, M. Gabet, for your thoughtful remarks, which have already begun to paint an enlightening picture of the wonderful work of the individual we gather to honor together.  

Dear Marina French, the award that I have the honor of presenting you today –the Legion of Honor – is France’s premier honorary distinction. Founded by Napoleon Bonaparte, it has for centuries recognized eminent accomplishments in service to France and the achievements that uphold France’s ideals. Among the ideals we hold most dear is the importance of culture, the arts, and education, manifested here in this very space which has served as home of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy for over 60 years, and which now serves as the headquarters of Villa Albertine, France’s new cultural institution reinventing artists’ and thought leaders’ residencies to create a network for arts and ideas spanning France and the United States 

Such a steadfast commitment could only be found in someone who demonstrated a lifelong engagement with the arts, and your early life was marked by exchanges between Europe and the United States. An alumna of the Brearley School, where you’ve had the pleasure of seeing grandchildren continue your legacy, you continued your studies at Université de Lausanne and the New York School of Interior Design, initiating a long and profound engagement with decorative arts. The daughter of German parents, you quickly gained both a linguistic fluency- in French and German- as well as a cultural fluency, spending each summer on the Cote d’Azur in a home designed by the celebrated architect Jacques Couelle in Castellaras Le Neuf, Mouans-Sartoux. You’ve maintained this tradition and connection to France throughout your life, safeguarding this important piece of French cultural patrimony and your own family history.  

As you continued to deepen your leadership commitments, as both president of the Marina Kellen French Foundation and later forging a new chapter in your family’s history as vice president of the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation, you seamlessly integrated your background in the decorative arts with your passion for French cultural heritage and creation. The Friends of the Musée des Arts décoratifs have benefited from your engagement as an active member for over 15 years, and you distinguished yourself as one of the most fervent supporters of the restoration of the masterpiece of French cultural patrimony, the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte. Charmed by a visit to the chateau when you were just 10 years old, you now play an essential role in safeguarding its beauty for the enchantment of others, sponsoring the restoration of fountains and the monumental statue of Hercules that graces the chateau’s elegant gardens. With an infectious passion for these essential and theatrical elements of French cultural heritage, you brought the soul of the garden back to life, and friends recall how you joyfully turned the key to set the great fountain into motion once again – much to the delight of your Instagram followers if I might add. When a fire ravaged Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral, you demonstrated your solidarity with the French people by supporting its restoration.  

You became deeply involved with European sculpture and decorative arts across the world, and here in New York, few institutions highlight these masterpieces as well as the Frick Collection. You have served as a longtime member of the Frick’s Director’s Circle, developing the museum’s programs and imagining its future, including important exhibits and acquisitions, many of which highlight French decorative arts. Ian Wardropper, who is with us this evening, has the honor of being the first Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Director of the Frick, thanks to your direction and in honor of your parents, ensuring that the museum will continue to cultivate leadership in this field for years to come.  

Many have noted the sincere curiosity and enthusiasm that drives your appreciation of the visual and decorative arts. Such was the case one day eight or nine years ago, when you and Wolfram Koeppe paid a visit to the late Hubert de Givenchy and his partner Philippe Venet for a viewing of his celebrated Rolltop Desk by David Roentgen at the Hôtel d’Orrouer in the Rue de Grenelle. A thirty-minute appointment soon became an exceptional afternoon spent together as you shared mutual friends, memories and a delight for art objects that led you to discover a secret compartment in the desk hitherto not known even to Mr. Givenchy. All while a stylish photograph of Audrey Hepburn looked down on you from the desk. Marina, it is safe to say that you keep good company!  

Each of your actions in support of France’s greatest cultural and education institutions demonstrates that your philanthropy is not only impactful but intentional and personal. Building on your ties to the south of France and your love of music, demonstrated by your longstanding leadership as an executive director of the Metropolitan Opera and board member, you have also become a supporter of the Féstival d’Aix, a highlight of the global opera season that gathers under the Provençal sun each summer to showcase new opera productions and an exceptional concert series. At Sciences-Po, where France prepares young people from across the world to be global leaders, and whose alumni include your son Andrew, your impactful support promotes research and innovation in the social sciences and excellence in international education.  

The luminosity of your endeavors should also be noted for its international orientation, permitting great minds and great art to be in dialogue with each other across geographies. On the other side of the Atlantic, you were awarded the Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit (First Class) of the Federal Republic of Germany for your tireless work on behalf of German-American relations, work that you continue today as a Trustee at the American Academy in Berlin, housed in your mother’s childhood home, where you endowed the Marina Kellen French Distinguished Visitorship for people with outstanding accomplishments in the cultural world. Here in New York, you served for 12 years as the second in charge of the Commission of Distinguished Visitors for the late Mayor Ed Koch’s administration, taking care of many French dignitaries that came to New York. In fact, your welcome was not only appreciated but essential as the only member of the commission who spoke French! Your global orientation is also clear in your philanthropy; your support of International House and your contributions over the past twenty-five years to the International Council at MoMA, cultivating and building the museum’s international program, are just two examples of your conviction that creative minds have something exceptional to offer society, and should be enabled to do so in dialogue on a global scale. Your work moves effortlessly between conservation and the cultivation of contemporary creation, and I know that a shared passion for this transdisciplinary work is cherished in the relationship you have developed with Gaëtan Bruel, our Cultural Counselor in New York and Director of the Villa Albertine.  

Marina, the depth and breadth of your achievements in support of the arts are truly exceptional, almost without comparison. For decades, you have served as a guiding presence in the city’s key cultural discussions, and in cultural dialogue on an international scale. With admirable steadfastness, you have participated in the leadership of the great institutions that keep the arts alive and cultivate the best in the arts, serving on boards including that of the Metropolitan Opera, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, Carnegie Hall, the Morgan Library and Museum, and TEFAF Art Fair, where you were the first woman to serve on the board of directors. These are just some of your boundless engagements as an advocate of culture, an advocacy which must also be noted for its commitment to ensuring that culture is accessible to people across generations, across borders, and from all backgrounds – through initiatives that have included supporting free museum admission programs, public broadcasting, and youth programming in the arts.  

Your contributions in the arts, as a patron and supporter of so many of the leading cultural institutions throughout the city of New York and across the Atlantic, are marked not only by their exceptional scale but by their emphasis on support for new research, scholarship, and public access to the arts and culture. Perhaps no institution better illustrates the depth of your engagement than the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with which you hold a special and exceptional relationship. You and your son Andrew pioneered the Met’s Executive Leadership Program with Columbia Business School, which allows Met employees to receive MBA-level mid-career education, demonstrating your commitment to fostering the growth of others. Channeling your own passion and showing a profound dedication to the decorative arts field, you endowed the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts’ curatorship, with a particular emphasis on Central European decorative arts, a role currently held by Wolfram Koeppe, who joins us this evening. Perhaps most remarkable and the crowning example of the unique nature of your philanthropic engagement, your endowment of the Marina Kellen French directorship of the Met, now held by Max Hollein who joins us this evening alongside President and CEO Dan Weiss, not only ensures exceptional leadership of the museum, but through operational support ensures that the museum will remain accessible to all. You have safeguarded the leadership of an institution which perhaps best embodies the depth and breadth of human artistic and cultural achievement.  

Your impact has greatly furthered the democratization and the preservation of culture, two principles dear to France. It’s clear that in the scope of your work, you continue to cherish and tirelessly promote the intersections between arts access in your own backyard and a robust global cultural dialogue. A powerful connector, you generously bring individuals together to achieve great things. Dear Marina, as I have the honor of presiding over this ceremony, it bears mentioning that your late parents, your mother, Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and your father, Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur, would be extremely proud of what you have achieved.  

It is a challenge to capture the scale of all that you have accomplished, but I think it is safe to say as we gather this evening, that for each of the many leaders in this room upon whom you have had an immense impact, there are hundreds more, and they can be found working across New York, Europe, and beyond. Your engagement in the leadership and numerous projects of great institutions has altered the shape of the cultural landscape not only in the US but also in France and around the world, and for that we are extremely grateful. Your example is an inspiration to future generations who hope to foster a dynamic, thriving cultural network and to become stewards of the most important causes.  

For these reasons and many more, in recognition of your commitment to the global cultural community, to the cultural heritage of France, and to French American artistic exchange, it is my privilege to honor you on behalf of the President of the French Republic.  

Marina Kellen French, au nom du Président de la République, nous vous remettons les insignes de Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.