On May 18, 2023, Agnes Gund, philanthropist and partron of the arts, was awarded with the insignia of Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur by Laurence des Cars, President-Director of the Musée du Louvre, at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York.
Gaëtan Bruel, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, began the ceremony with words of introduction:
Ladies and gentlemen, good evening,
I am Gaëtan Bruel, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy and Director of Villa Albertine, and it is my great pleasure to welcome you all to Villa Albertine tonight to celebrate a beloved friend of France, Agnes Gund.
Dear Agnes, the Legion of Honor is France’s premier honorary distinction and the most prestigious award issued to civilians. Founded in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, it recognizes eminent accomplishments in service of the public good. For two centuries, it has been presented to individuals who have carried out actions of great value–achievements that uphold the very best of French ideals. And while typically, we would say that France honors the recipients of this award, tonight it is France who is honored by you. One of the most influential philanthropists of our time, your generosity and stewardship have been deeply felt by countless cultural institutions and numerous social causes in New York and across the world. We are delighted and humbled to welcome such a steadfastly devoted friend of art and culture to Villa Albertine this evening. Please allow me to say, Aggie, that it is a point of pride that we are now able to count you among our chevaliers de la Légion d’honneur, of which there are so few.
And who better to present you with this honor than Laurence des Cars, President-Director of the Louvre– a champion for the visibility of French art and culture from the helm of the most visited museum in the world, and a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur herself.
Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to give the floor to Ms. Laurence des Cars.
Laurence des Cars proceeded to present Agnes Gund with the insignia:
It is a pleasure, but even more a privilege and an honor for me, to be with you all tonight, to present to an exceptional woman – whom I deeply admire – the most honorific of all French awards: the Légion d’honneur.
Created almost two hundred years ago by Napoleon, this medal is given to celebrate the achievements of those extraordinary men and women who distinguished themselves in their fields, in the service of France or values held dear by the French Republic.
Tonight, France salutes a great patron of the arts, a collector committed to supporting a vast range of artists, and a longtime advocate for social change and justice.
Someone who believes in the power of culture and, overall, the profound, broad, and bold impact museums and art can have on communities.
An admirable role model woman, with deeply held convictions.
A philanthropist exercising a positive and notable influence on society. Madame Agnes Gund.
I was told – but I am not going to reveal my source – that your first encounter with the Louvre was in Ohio, where you grew up. One of your teachers used to send you art postcards while traveling abroad, which you carefully kept – in a way, one of your first collections! The Louvre was well represented in this series, and images such as The Raft of the Medusa or Claude’s landscapes left a lasting mark on your mind. You knew the Louvre even before coming to the Louvre.
No wonder you decided to study art history at Harvard!
No wonder, also, you joined MoMA’s International Council while finishing your Master.
Museums have always occupied a central place in your life – because these are institutions you cherish and where you feel at home, but also because you are convinced they can make a difference.
You see them as sites of change, of knowledge, of answers, and of questions – locations where contemplation is possible, but where debate and education can have an even more powerful effect.
This is what enticed you to actively serve as an officer and trustee at the Museum of Modern Art. Elected a member of MoMA’s Board of Trustees in 1976, you served as President from 1991 until 2002 – and you are still, to this day, President Emerita of the Museum, in recognition of your outstanding contributions to enhancing the collection by donating many works of art, and supporting educational programs and exhibitions.
You also serve on the board of MoMA’s sister museum, MoMA PS1, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies, and the Morgan Library and Museum.
You care about what museums can do now, but you are also deeply invested in their future: you are co-founder and chair emerita of the Center for Curatorial Leadership – and I see Buffy, your partner in crime, right here – but also trustee emerita of the Barnes Foundation and YoungArts, as well as honorary trustee of Independent Curators International.
This Légion d’honneur celebrates decades of work with museums, and your continuous efforts to shed light on the public’s power of perception. It celebrates also your tireless involvement to do justice to the talent of dozen of living artists – from celebrated figures you count among your friends to emerging ones whose works you champion, with a genuine sensitivity to the challenges facing women artists and artists of color.
This award also honors a civic leader and staunch supporter of education, environmental concerns, and social justice. In 1977, you established “Studio in a School,” a non-profit organization aimed at responding to budget cuts that virtually eliminated arts classes from New York City public schools. Over the years, the program has reached more than a million children in the city alone.
All your endeavors have been driven by your firm and deeply rooted sense of justice. Your tenacity has been ceaseless, as proves your life-long commitment to enabling access to art and education for people of every section of society.
In June 2017, you famously sold one of your prized works of art for 150 million dollars, and took the proceeds to create the “Art for Justice” Fund, in partnership with the Ford Foundation – and your dear friend Darren –, and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. Your explicit goal was to end the scourge of mass incarceration in America.
“Art for Justice” has funded at least a dozen shows over the years. For one of its most notable, “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration” at MoMA PS1, the New Yorker even wrote that it was “hard to imagine a more essential exhibition.”
Parallel to this crucial work, you have also served on the boards of:
the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center,
the Andy Warhol Foundation,
Chess in the Schools,
the Frick Collection,
the Foundation for Contemporary Arts,
the New York City Mayor’s Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission,
and as a founding board member of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, among many others.
Tonight France salutes a lifetime of achievement, promoting the education of children in the arts, facilitating women rights, striving to make this nation’s criminal justice better, and fighting for gun control. By connecting art and advocacy, you shine a bright light on injustice, contributing to empowering communities and acting for change.
Your sense of justice is only reinforced by your unshakable integrity.
You are, in your own way, a formidable force.
And on a more personal note, I would like to add to this list your extraordinary generosity of spirit, warmth, spontaneity, humility, that inspire both admiration and affection.
I must say that, coming from a country where public initiative is central, seeing someone like you so actively committed to giving back, making this world a better place, doing everything she can to make art and education accessible to everyone, influencing museums with her ethics and vision, commands respect and teaches us a lesson.
Your sage leadership has guided us – and continues to guide us – to meaning, to reflection, to call for higher action and a better, fairer society. And for this,
Agnes Gund, au nom du Président de la République et en vertu des pouvoirs qui nous sont conférés, nous vous faisons Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.