On Wednesday, April 12th, 2017, Lili Chopra and Sam Miller were honored with the insignia of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters at a ceremony at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York. Cultural Counselor Bénédicte de Montlaur conferred the insignia to the two accomplished leaders of the art world.
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! It is my pleasure to welcome you all tonight in my capacity as Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, especially as we honor two close friends of our Cultural Services here in New York, Lili Chopra and Sam Miller.
The Order of Arts and Letters was established in 1957 by the French government to honor not only prestigious artists and writers, but also individuals whose commitment to the arts, and to French art in particular, distinguished itself from the rest.
Lili, Sam, you are both dedicated to the arts and to transcultural dialogue. In different ways, throughout your careers, you have made invaluable contributions to the arts in the United States and abroad by encouraging the creation of innovative projects including festivals, residences, and exhibits. Your projects and initiatives have brought you to work in close collaboration with the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, and with each other. It is always a pleasure to work with you, and it is my privilege to present each of you with this award.
Let us begin with you, Lili.
Dear Lili Chopra,
Just 20 years ago, you were graduating from the Université Paris X with a Master’s in Theater and Performing Arts History. You built an exceptional career devoted not only to the production of cultural and artistic programming, but also to the encouragement of international dialogue and cooperation. Now you are Executive Vice President and Artistic Director of the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF), a beacon of French culture and art in the United States, and a cherished friend of the Cultural Services.
Before joining FIAF in 2006, you worked for a number of dance companies and arts institutions, including the Dance Theater Workshop (DTW) here in New York – which we now know as New York Live Arts (NYLA). At DTW, under the mentorship of David White, its director, you participated as associate producer and exhibition commissioner in the production of many performances and events including The Bessies, the annual New York Dance and Performance award ceremony. These programs were an opportunity to meet some of the finest artists and dancers in the field, but also a chance to help expose emerging artists to a broader public. You became deeply familiar with the New York art scene and its relationship with Francophone communities around the city, developing a unique affinity for facilitating Franco-American dialogue.
Your flair for conceptualizing and developing artistic projects remained in your work at the Diane Von Furstenberg studio as Project Chief. You hosted a number of benefits while at the company, showing what one of your colleagues deemed “an extraordinary instinctive disposition for culture, arts, and literature.” In everything that you did, every project, every job, you showed a unique propensity for spotting what is missing in the art scene and understanding what cultures and people have to learn from each other.
It is no doubt this ability that has made you a visionary Artistic Director at FIAF and has led you to form an incredibly successful duo with Marie-Monique Steckel, its President who continually praises your humanity and talents. In your efforts to develop projects that appeal both to Francophone and American audiences in the city, you created programs that redefined FIAF’s role in New York culture. I’m thinking, of course, of “Crossing the Line”, a festival that premiered in 2007, “World Nomads”, a biennale that premiered in 2008, and the recent Tilt Kids Festival, which has brought you to work even more closely with us. By taking risks and valuing innovation, constantly pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone, together, you and Marie-Monique have raised FIAF to new levels of excellence.
Your father, who could not be here with us today, assured us with pride that you have been “crossing the line” with perseverance and insight since childhood. So I’m not surprised that Crossing the Line is one of your most important projects. You designed it as a platform for unexpected encounters with artists from around the world and across disciplines. It was also designed in partnership some of New York’s most prestigious art institutions with whom you’ve built long lasting friendships.
Along with co-curators Simon Dove, and then Gideon Lester, you have encouraged the presentation of contemporary French works such as Bouchra Ouizguen’s Madame Plaza in 2010 and Joris Lacoste’s Encyclopédie de la Parole: Suite n.2, in 2014 as well as European artists such as Alessandro Sciarroni and Romeo Castellucci, whose performances earned them high praise.
The success of all of the artists that you have commissioned or programmed over the years is due is no small part to the complete devotion and attention you show them; there is nothing, really, you would not do to support their work. Choreographer Sarah Michelson once said, “It’s impossible to say no to Lili Chopra.”
Your interest in cross-cultural dialogue also led to the creation of “World Nomads”, a biennial celebrating exchange between francophone communities, and expanding our notion of French culture today. French-speaking countries such as Lebanon, Morocco, or Senegal were represented by prestigious artists from a variety of disciplines, such as Wajd Mouawad in theater, Bernard Khoury in architecture, and Radhouane El Meddeb and Jonah Bokaer in dance.
It is clear, by looking at the programs and events you have developed throughout your career that you have made it your mission to provide diversity where it is lacking. The more voices there are in a conversation, the richer the conversation will be. You seek to bring together artists from everywhere, from every discipline, to every kind of audience imaginable – a melting pot of ideas and inspiration. Ambitious, to be sure, but you have proven again and again how suited you are to the task. In the words of Gideon Lester, your close friend and co-curator of Crossing the Line, you bring a “vital internationalism to our sometimes provincial city”.
It is this artistic rigor and constant search for new audiences that brought you to our recent collaborative efforts to create the Tilt Kids Festival, bringing an eclectic array of arts to younger generations. After 5 weeks of exciting work, this year’s edition will soon come to an end, but I think we can already say it was once more a great success!
Dear Lili Chopra, you have defined yourself not just as a pillar of the Franco-American cultural conversation in New York, but also as central figure in the city’s global art and culture scene. Thanks to your encouragement and unconditional support, emerging artists from the United States, France, and around the world have been able to join in the art conversation we have made it our mission to support here at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. You are both a product and an agent of the bicultural mindset that fosters more transnational cooperation every day, and it is my honor to acknowledge your accomplishments.
Lili Chopra, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Dear Sam Miller,
Throughout your life you have been a passionate leader and innovator, and a tireless advocate for the arts, whose efforts have, among many other things, brought countless artists to a wider American public. You have proven, again and again, through your various projects and hard work, your ability to further important, challenging and inspiring work from around the world. A poet, an avid reader, and fervent cinephile, your engagement with culture is vast, but more than that you are a loyal and generous friend who is always willing to lend a helping hand, brainstorm new innovative ideas, and connect people. Your work brought you to collaborate with us many times, and I can personally attest to your commitment to bridging, preserving, and developing artistic communities. However, let us go back to the beginning, for your work in arts leadership and advocacy can be traced back all the way to your youth.
Your mother was the founding member and manager of the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island, and your father took over the managerial duties soon after. As a child, you would participate in some productions – acting, and even working backstage for your parents at the theater. They must not have been very surprised when you graduated college as a theater major, and started working as a manager of C.E.T.A, a ballet company in Arizona. You once said, “Exposure to the arts has been a transformative experience that is essential to the way I live my life”. Indeed, art was present all around you growing up, like a third parent or a close sibling, and your relationship with it became a part of you.
You first started your career in 1986 as Program Director, and later as Executive Director and President of the Jacob’s Pillow Festival, one of the most prestigious dance festivals in the United States. From then until departing in 1995, you slowly but surely transformed the festival into an internationally renowned event hosting dance companies from all over the world – or, as Time Magazine dubbed it, “the hub and Mecca of dancing”.
After leaving Jacob’s Pillow in 1995, you were named Executive Director of the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA). During your 10 years there, you pioneered not only the National Dance Project, but also the Cambodian Artists Project, the Creative Economy Initiative, and the Favorite Poem Project, which you designed with US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. With each one of these projects, you brought groups, ideas, and perspectives together to create new, original narratives for audiences to discover.
It is also in your capacity as Executive Director of NEFA, that in 2004 you came to use with a new venture idea: the French-US Exchange in Dance program, dedicated to the support of emerging choreographic projects both from France and the United States. We could not be more honored by your decision to work with us, and by your dedication to the program. Still in place today, FUSED has enabled French choreographers such as Rachid Ouramdane, Christian Rizzo, Nacera Belaza, Myriam Gourfink or even Emmanuelle Huynh to make themselves known on American soil, and American artists such as Trajal Harrell, Faye Driscoll, Jonah Bokaer, or Kyle Abraham in France. Thanks to your vision, FUSED has constructed a network of strong partnerships between French and American presenters and artists, enabling innovative collaborations, and has been hugely influential in targeting new audiences in both countries.
But that is not all you have achieved, far from it! During your 5 years presiding over Leveraging Investments in Creativity between 2005 and 2010, you gave yourself a new mission: to improve direct aid to artists, facilitate interaction between artists and the public, and make artists’ creative environment more inviting and inspiring. It is also during these 5 years that you founded the OAM, an organization devoted to consulting and production in the arts in the United States. As president, you created a special program, the first of its kind, the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance, at Wesleyan University. Unlike curatorial studies programs in other universities, ICPP is dedicated to the study of contemporary dance, its history, and its environment. No longer satisfied with enriching the art scene in unique and brilliant ways, you turned to education to make sure there would be a path for younger generations to continue to innovate in arts and performance programming. You understood an idea we hold to be crucial here in our offices: that no innovation is sufficient, and no progress complete, if we cannot find a way to include all communities and people, from all ages and backgrounds. A bit of a feminist yourself, you are, and I think we can all attest to this in this room, a champion and great advocate for women and artists of color all around.
This dedication of trans-generational and broad, far reaching communication has shone through your work as president of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), a role you assumed in 2010. You became an ambassador of the arts and culture in lower Manhattan in order to inject new life into the oldest part of New York City. Through the organization of events such as River to River, an annual multidisciplinary festival, or the series Arts East River Waterfront, successfully pursued this objective. Your education programs and arts residences, at Governor’s Island and elsewhere, extends your continuing project of bringing arts to underserved communities around the city.
Sam, throughout the many things that you have accomplished, you stay dedicated, focused, and organized. Your ability to create and invent projects and programs makes you something of an accomplished artist yourself. Perhaps it is this deep affinity with your own creative aspirations that makes you such a pleasure to work with for artists of all backgrounds – a true kindred spirit. Eiko Otake, who is here with Koma today, perfectly captures the impression you leave behind everywhere you go: “The world needs many Sams,” she said, “ but of course we only have one Sam!” Indeed, we agree! Your engagement, your commitment, and your belief that the arts can change the world are qualities that we admire and value.
The relationship between France and the United States is one that is built on strong mutual admiration for our respective cultures. One of the most important aspects of that dynamic comes from our shared love of art, and the instrumental role it plays in society. It has become a building block of our friendship. Our two cultures have added layers upon layers of depth to each other’s history – and you, Sam, are an essential part of that dynamic.
Dear Sam Miller, you have been committed to supporting, promoting, and inspiring funders, administrators, curators, and artists throughout your entire career. You have contributed so much to the arts, and to the dance community, in particular, weaving a tapestry of artists across all generations in your events.
Sam Miller, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.