France Honors Caroline Baumann, Brett Littman, and Andres Serrano

France Honors Caroline Baumann, Brett Littman, and Andres Serrano

On March 5, 2018, Caroline Baumann, Brett Littman, and Andres Serrano were honored with the insignia of the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters in a ceremony held at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy.

Good evening!

As Cultural Counselor, it is my pleasure to welcome you here to the Cultural Services of the French Embassy to bestow the insignia of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters upon Director of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Caroline Baumann, Art Critic and Drawing Center Director, Brett Littman, and world-renowned Artist Andres Serrano.

In 1957, the Order of Arts and Letters was established by the French government to recognize renowned artists and writers who have contributed significantly to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world.

Tonight, we honor three individuals who have made vast and unique contributions to the world of art and design. As Director of the Cooper Hewitt, Caroline Baumann has made a major contribution to the expansion of the museum’s scope through both renovation and innovation to reach wider audiences in more meaningful ways. Brett Littman has been working in the non-profit art world for nearly 30 years. As Director of the Drawing Center, he has invited various international artists to showcase their work, and has helped to foster important connections between American artists and the international drawing scene. Andres Serrano, a self-deemed “conceptual artist with a camera” who lives and works in New York and Paris and has exhibited all across the world, has performed the critical role of the artist by confronting his audiences with pictures questioning our contemporary society.

Caroline Baumann, I will begin with you:

You have the unique position of being a Swiss-American born in Paris. You graduated from Bates College majoring in French Literature and Art History, and went on to receive a master’s degree from NYU in Medieval Art. With a specialization in French and Art, and a post-graduate degree from a school in New York, perhaps your path to the Cooper Hewitt was fated. You also played integral roles at institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and the Calhoun School in Manhattan before arriving at the Cooper Hewitt in 2001.

In 2003, you were named the museum’s director, and while you continuous to expand its presence and vision, you have already left your mark on the Cooper Hewitt’s legacy with an incredibly successful restoration and renovation which you oversaw and meticulously managed. This renovation, completed in 2014, was a three-year process that involved working with numerous design firms and experts to renovate the historic Carnegie Mansion, home to the Cooper Hewitt, and in the process, reinvent the museum’s vision. The renovation earned acclaim from international press, received multiple awards and recognitions, and reasserted the Cooper Hewitt’s presence as “the museum of the future.” Included in this renovation was the expansion of the museum’s interactive exhibitions and digital technologies, which effectively broke down the walls of the traditional museum and now allow the visitor to be the designer. You were integral to this intensive process, managing it every step of the way and trading your typically elegant outfits for a hardhat!

Moreover, you have harnessed the powers of our digital age to expand the museum’s accessibility to its maximum, as Cooper Hewitt has made its permanent collection of 217,000 design objects available in digitized form on its website.

You have also overseen the expansion of the Cooper Hewitt’s award-winning education department, making art accessible to just about every audience possible: today the department runs a free national design program for students of all ages, professional development programs for teachers, public programming for adults, and a graduate-level program in partnership with Parsons School of Design for students of design and curatorial studies. You also developed an important partnership with Van Cleef & Arpels to bring L’École, as well as other important French design houses, including Maison Lesage and Sèvres, to the museum for lectures and hands-on workshops.

While the Cooper Hewitt finds its campus only a few blocks from here, on the Upper East Side, you have produced dozens of exhibitions reaching locations across the United States and internationally. You have also continually worked to bring an international vision to the exhibits of the museum, and you have centered many on French artists. In doing so, you have continued the museum’s tradition of celebrating the French decorative arts, as the Cooper Hewitt was originally inspired by the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and was originally endowed with a collection largely acquired from France.

Some recent exhibitions directed under your care have highlighted the designs of Sonia Delaunay, Lalique, and Paris Opera design. You are currently overseeing an upcoming exhibition of Hector Guimard. You also helped direct the exhibition Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels which involved the talented Patrick Jouin as the exhibition’s designer. Finding that much of your staff, and all of his staff, spoke French, the mounting of the installation ended up taking place largely in French. This gave you an added incentive to come check-in on the progress!

Moreover, you have majorly enriched the museum’s vision by making global partnerships. Notably, during your tenure, you have collaborated with the Cultural Services of the French Embassy on multiple occasions and for the benefit of diverse audiences. In collaboration with Oui Design—a program initiated by the French Embassy to foster creative exchange in design between France and the US—you sent a representative from the Cooper Hewitt to France to develop partnerships with French institutions, and at the same time, hosted the French studio Ymer&Malta for a conference. And this year, Cooper Hewitt is a partner venue for Tilt Kids Festival, presented by the French Embassy and the French Institute Alliance Française, which seeks to offer challenging and enriching artistic experiences to audiences of all ages. The museum will host “Lettering Lab,” a workshop for children led by Lebanese-Canadian designer and Professor Diane Mikhael, exploring the Arabic and Latin alphabets.

Outside of the Cooper Hewitt, you are highly active in the art world. You served as a panelist for the 2017 U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale and are a member of the Applied Arts and Design Museum Network, the Royal College of Art USA Board, the NYCxDesign Steering Committee, the Dwell On Design New York Advisory Board, and an honorary committee member for Salon | Art + Design.

Your appreciation of French culture is one that you pursue beyond the Cooper Hewitt, and one that has been with you since birth—a French friend of yours even calls you a “true Parisian,” a notoriously hard compliment to receive from a French person! As a child, you frequently followed your mother, a specialist in 11th and 12th Century Romanesque churches, around the sprawling rural landscapes of Auvergne. With a child of your own, you have practically made it a family tradition to have the kids follow their parents around France, as you have taken your son everywhere from Paris to Bordeaux to Normandy since he was born.

You approach your work with a profound interest in connecting with people and making art accessible to the broadest possible audience. For the tireless efforts that you have made to reinvigorate the history of design and expand its reach, and for your remarkable work to promote French and international design, it is my great pleasure to present you, Caroline Baumann, with the Order of Arts and Letters.

Caroline Baumann, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Dear Brett Littman:

Born in Brooklyn, you have always been a New Yorker. And as a child in the city, you were exposed to New York’s endless collection of museums and galleries. You studied philosophy and poetry at the University of California at San Diego, but you soon returned to New York, first working at the Brooklyn Center for Performing Arts and then as the associate director and development director for Urban Glass. In 2001, you began serving as the co-executive director at Dieu Donné Papermill, a workspace and gallery. You arrived at MOMA PS1 in 2003 to serve as its deputy director. In each position, you gained enormous experience through realizing the institution’s vision and applying it in ways that audiences could tangibly experience. It did not matter that your educational background did not involve art history—in fact, this gave you the ability to always see art through other contexts.

Since 2007, you have been at the Drawing Center as its executive director. The Center, a non-profit museum that explores drawing and its dynamic relationship with contemporary culture, has benefited greatly from your multidisciplinary outlook and innovative perspective in both your curation and shaping of its vision. You also managed the Center’s $10 million capital campaign and the 2012 building expansion—the Drawing Center has quite literally expanded under you.

While you have worked tirelessly in your position and have curated and directed a breadth of exhibitions, there are a few that I would like to highlight.

In 2015, under your supervision, the Drawing Center put on “Portraits from the École des Beaux-Arts de Paris.” This remarkable exhibition took 40 portraits painted over 400 years from the impressive collection of the École. Each week, four highly diverse portraits were hung in conversation with each other in a specially-built room. Through this project, you brought the gallery’s visitors to a new level of intimacy with art from France.

Then in early 2016, you commissioned the exhibition Energy Scaffolds and Information Architecture from Louise Despont, the Prix Canson 2013 winner who has exhibited at the Petit Palais in Paris.

And in the spring of 2016, you invited Béatrice Gross, French curator and Sol LeWitt scholar, to collaborate and select works for an exhibition entitled Drawing Dialogues: Selections from the Sol LeWitt Collection. In exhibiting the drawings of this major artist, his influences, his contemporaries, and of artists in turn inspired by him, you captured not only LeWitt’s larger-than-life brilliant curiosity, but you also depicted the artistic developments and trends in of the second half of the 20th century.

You have also been key in bringing contemporary French artists to the United States, as you have invited many to the Drawing Center for solo shows, including Abelkader Benchamma, Alexandre Singh, graphic designers M/M, and architect Yona Friedmann just to name a few.

You have called drawing “the root of all visual thinking,” and the exhibitions you have directed and curated demonstrate your conviction that drawing is a way to solve problems and explore the world from new perspectives, a visionary idea that stems perhaps from your training in philosophy. You merged drawing and dancing in 2014 when the Drawing Center hosted the collaborative performance between Susan Hefuna and choreographer Luca Vegetti, called “Notationotations.” Before every performance, Susan Hefuna would come and make a sprawling chalk drawing in the main gallery, and in the three-part live series Vegetti’s dancers would come dance on Hefuna’s lines, capturing the human body moving through space as a drawing.

Not only do you consider art from a multitude of disciplines, but from a breadth of international perspectives. You constantly engage in global dialogue surrounding art, frequently contributing to a wide range of international publications and scholarly journals. Here in New York, you give back your extensive knowledge through lectures to the community that first exposed you to art as a child, and you have earned grants to research and lecture internationally as well, from Buenos Aires to Sweden. You also earned a grant in 2009 from us here at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy for research in Paris.

Moreover, you are a member of the French-American Cultural Exchange Foundation, a nonprofit organization that partners with us here at the Cultural Services to promote artistic and literary exchange. You also serve as an active member of the Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art, known as the AICA. You are a member of the jury for the Prix Canson, one of the most prestigious drawing prizes in the world, and you have served on the jury of the Art Olympia International Competition in Japan. You are also highly involved with the Drawing Now Fair, France’s most important fair for contemporary art drawings, where you have in recent years participated in various talks, crafted a video program, and where you will in March again participate and give an interview.

It is not just you, but your work, that is markedly international. At the Drawing Center you developed programs like “Open Sessions,” which invites international artists to participate in exhibitions and conversations on the diverse nature of drawing. Many of the exhibitions you’ve curated have ended up traveling the world, reaching prestigious museums such as the Tate Britain in London and the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome. During your time as director, the Drawing Center has also been honored with the International Association of Art Critics USA award for Best Show by a Non-Profit Gallery or Space, most recently for the 2010 exhibition Leon Golub: Live & Die Like a Lion?

It is no surprise that your final exhibition at the Drawing Center will feature yet another international figure, German artist Neo Rauch. Indeed, earlier this month, you accepted a position as Director of the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City. Although you will begin your new position in May of this year, you will still curate the Neo Rauch exhibition that will open at the Drawing Center in April 2019. There is no doubt that at the Noguchi, you will continue to explore your passion for creation and your propensity for revealing and fostering new connections, your multidisciplinary vision and innovative perspective.

For your outstanding contributions to the arts, in your explorations of drawing as a multidisciplinary medium, and for your promotion of French and international artists in the United States, it is my great pleasure to present you, Brett Littman, with the Order of Arts and Letters.

Brett Littman, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Dear Andres Serrano,

You are an artist who has challenged our conceptions of art and sparked, debate and dialogue for nearly thirty years—thus it is hard to know where to begin when speaking about you. As one of the most well-known living artists, much has been said and written about you already, and through your own work you have said so much yourself. You come to us today having just closed a four-month exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris featuring 40 of your works, and marking the third year that the Palais has invited a contemporary artist to showcase their work next to the permanent collection. This exhibition may hold a special place in your heart given that you live between Paris and New York, and have received wide recognition in France. Perhaps I should begin by considering how you have achieved such recognition in France, the US and around the world.

You were born in Brooklyn to parents from Honduras and Cuba. A school trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art raised your interest in art at a young age, and you began returning on your own to study the Renaissance paintings. These paintings stirred your interest in religious iconography, something you were already familiar with given your Roman Catholic upbringing. Whether you were aware of it then or not, these icons would come to play an enormous role in your artistic vision.

From a young age, you were on the path to becoming an artist. At fifteen you chose art school over high school, attending the Brooklyn Museum Art School from 1967 to 1969 where you specialized in painting and sculpture. Ironically, the art world knows you now for your photography, and consequently you are considered self-taught; yet rather than identify as a photographer, you call yourself a “conceptual artist with a camera.” And indeed, you approach your art in just this way: you carefully plan and arrange your subjects, creating compositions that reflect a rigorous and complex consideration of the aesthetic, political and cultural implications of your work.

For those who followed your career throughout the cultural debates of the 1990s, it is no surprise to hear that you have often been called “controversial.” Yet to understand you solely by that description would be to ignore the complexity of your work dealing with the hidden side of the human being, construction of identity, and history of art: your work conveys a strong sociological or even ethnological dimension reflection on our society and the human culture.

Your work is complex, in part, because of the way that you approach photography as a medium. Your first professional experience came from working as an assistant art director at an advertising firm, where you became familiar with the camera. In the early 1980s, you began creating tableaux which included not only religious iconography, but dead animals and raw meat. These tableaux were not only inspired by Surrealism, but also by your desire to explore your unresolved feelings about your Catholic upbringing and your relationship with God.

In pursuing your own questions about photography and art—what it is and what it should be—you have in turn confronted your audience with questions about what they consider beautiful. You have given the art world new ways of thinking about photography, focusing less on photography’s function as a factual document, and instead emphasizing its ability to address abstract philosophical, theological and aesthetic ideas. You have called your work a mirror, arguing that it reflects the energy of the viewer, casting back either the positive or negative energy projected onto it. With regard to your work, historian and art theorist Daniel Arasse, once wrote: “If Serrano’s work is provocative, it’s because he demands that we look, straight in the eye, what today, increasingly commonly, we tend to avoid, what we prefer to ignore and not to contemplate.”

While you have produced many series, I want to mention one that captures the deep integrity with which you approach your art. Your series “Nomads,” produced in 1990, marks your increasing interest in creating images of marginalized individuals. In the winter of 1990, you visited several subway stops between midnight and 5 am with your friend Michael Coulter and an assistant. You paid some of the people you encountered on site to pose for ten minutes. This is a subject that you would return to again in 2014 with “Residents of New York,” a series of over 85 large-format portraits of men and women living on New York’s streets, which were then installed around the city, on phone booths, and on the inside of the West 4th Street subway station. These portraits were created with meticulous attention to detail, and you capture the dignity of each individual you portray.

By 1990, your works were receiving steady recognition and you began being exhibited around the world. You have been invited to prestigious museums and exhibitions such as at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the 1993 Venice Biennial, and your art has been displayed in galleries and museums across Europe and the United States. You have established a substantial presence in France, where you were first represented by the historical Yvon Lambert gallery and are now currently represented by the renowned Galerie Nathalie Obadia in Paris. Many of your works remain in Yvon Lambert’s collection in Avignon. In Paris, the Maison Europeene de la Photographie celebrated you in late 2016 by featuring an extensive exhibition of your works from some of your most famous series. You’ve somewhat humorously claimed: “I’m known in America as a controversial artist but in Europe I’m known simply as “Andres Serrano.” But it is clear that your enduring fame in both the US and Europe is a result, not of mere controversy, but the quality of your work and the difficult questions it provokes.

As an artist, you have made incisive contributions to some of the most pressing issues of the past several decades. Genuine “historian of our era,” you are curious, well read, and your work evokes your carefully considered thoughts and inspirations. You have done the critical job of the contemporary artist by confronting your audience with questions that they are unable to ask themselves.

Andres Serrano, it is my pleasure to present you with the Order of Arts and Letters.

Andres Serrano, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Image credit: Daniella Isabel Apodaca