On Monday, June 27, 2016, Ambassador of France in the United States Gérard Araud awarded Steven Guttman the distinction of Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. He honored him with the following speech, during a ceremony held at Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York.
Dear Steven, ladies and gentlemen,
The Legion of Honor, France’s premier award, is bestowed in recognition of outstanding achievements on behalf of France, or in support of its ideals, and has been received by some of the most eminent men and women around the world.
As Mark Bradford – an American artist whose work is now part Centre Pompidou’s permanent collection thanks to your efforts – once said, “Life and work are very organic and fluid, like a laboratory. Jump in, you’ll figure it out.” You epitomize Bradford’s observation: You are adventurous, and eager to seek out the unknown, in art, in your work, and in your life in general. And in doing so, you have embodied the spirit of French-American cultural exchange throughout your career.
First and foremost, you are an art aficionado in every sense of the word. It was while you were in law school at George Washington University in Washington DC, that your taste for art began to blossom. You wandered around, chatted with people, and learned about new trends in art that would take off in the years to come. After exploring the market of antique wooden furniture from England, you eventually moved on to painting. Your first purchase was a Willem de Looper, an abstract artist and a major figure in the DC art scene at the time.
Over the years, you and your wife, Kathy – who is here with us tonight, and who is every bit the art expert that you are – have added to that growing collection. You have amassed over 500 artworks, creating one of the most impressive collections of contemporary art in the United States. In acquiring new works you have been driven by your open, intellectual curiosity and desire for discovery. For example, two years ago you bought an Alex Israel painting. At the time he was not very well known. The Pompidou has since acquired several works by the artist.
Your love of art is perhaps only equaled by your love of France. You and your wife frequently travel to Paris where you own a second home. It is your wife who best expressed your relationship to the city when she said that it “blends together sophistication, culture, energy, and a way of life that stimulates you in an utterly infectious way.” So, when you became a member of the board of the Centre Pompidou Foundation in 2007, and then Chairman of the Board in 2012, it was a perfect fit.
It comes as no surprise that your tenure at the Foundation parallels that of Alain Seban, President of the Centre Pompidou. Alain Seban took over direction of the Pompidou in 2007 with the ambition to make the museum, in his words, “global, because art is now global.” He set out to achieve these goals, in part, by developing a network of global support systems. Clearly you were part of that project, and the results are evident.
The Centre Georges Pompidou was constructed in 1977 as a multidisciplinary cultural center, designed to house modern and contemporary art and performance. Over the years, as its collection has grown, it has become extraordinary influential. The Centre Pompidou Foundation played a sizable role in that expansion. But it is only in recent years, under your supervision, that it has grown to such great prominence. The Foundation, a Los Angeles-based not-for-profit, was created in tandem with the museum to procure gifts of American art and design for the Centre Pompidou’s permanent collection.
As Chairman, you have followed the Foundation’s mission while steering it in a direction that is entirely your own. Your artistic expertise and your eye for young talent have helped to infuse the Pompidou’s collection with new life. And the relationships that you have cultivated throughout your life, with curators, artists and collectors alike have been essential to that project. You have brought an array of artists into the Pompidou’s permanent collection such as Louise Bourgeois, an important French artist who lived most of her life in the United States and who became an icon of New York City; Wyatt Kahn and Louise Lawler, who are both American artists exploring non-traditional artistic paths, rewriting the conventional notions of a work of art; and Mark Bradford, an accomplished Californian who has recently been selected to represent the United States at the Venice Biennial in 2017. You have also given many major artworks to the Centre Pompidou yourself, by artists such as Liz Deschenes and Cheyney Thompson, in addition to coordinating the acquisition of many others. In total, your efforts have added about 450 works to the Centre Pompidou’s permanent collection. That is certainly no small feat.
These accomplishments represent an endeavor that benefits more than just the Pompidou itself. By infusing the collection with a broad range of American artists, many of them young and not well known to French artists and students, you sustain and contribute to an already-rich French-American dialogue. I hope that some of our guests here tonight will become inspired to join in this ongoing dialogue by supporting the Foundation.
Finally, Steven Guttman, your artistic insight has continually fueled your desire to build new projects, whether in design and architecture as a real estate developer, or as a pioneering entrepreneur. During a distinguished thirty-year career, you won many national design and architectural awards for your projects. You also started two companies that were developed around the need for storage facilities, the second of which, UOVO, was specifically constructed for art storage. The project – an ultra-modern 280,000-square-foot art storage space in Long Island City – came to life as a resourceful solution born from a passion for art.
Dear Steven Guttman,
You are a true visionary. Through your tremendous generosity, your vast knowledge, and your remarkable ability to identify emerging talent, you have enriched the Centre Pompidou collection, infusing it with new life. In doing so, you have heightened French-American cultural exchange.
It is an honor to confer upon you this award.
Steven Guttman, au nom du Président de la République, nous vous remettons les insignes de Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.