American patrons at the bedside of French heritage

It blew inside the National Library of France (BnF) a breeze from across the Atlantic, Tuesday, October 11. About fifty American patrons of the French Heritage Society (FHS), a philanthropic association supporting heritage, came to admire the ancient treasures and the Baroque ceiling of the newly restored Mazarin gallery, during a private tour of the new museum. of the BnF. A privileged welcome, in the early morning, before the opening of the institution, in the presence of Laurence Engel, its president.

It is for the love of culture, but also of a French way of life combining luxury and gastronomy, that these wealthy donors came to Paris for the 40e anniversary of their association. “When you love the arts, ballet, cooking, France, it’s excellence… Everything I love is French! », summarizes Dorie Bonn, who came from San Francisco (California). Like the other participants, she spent nearly 20,000 dollars (20,540 €) for this exceptional one-week trip, which is also used to raise funds for the FHS.

A circle of culture and influence

In four decades, the French Heritage Society has donated 14 million dollars (€14,381,850) for heritage preservation. The Petit Palais, the National Archives, the Abbey of Souillac (Lot) and many castles have benefited from its subsidies. For the restoration of the BnF, it offered 434,000 dollars (446,000 €), a drop of water in a budget of more than 260 million euros…

“In France, there is clearly a decorrelation between the amounts donated by American patrons and prestigious events, the unique access to circles of power that they make possible”, emphasizes Anne Monier, researcher at the philanthropy chair at Essec (1). Private visits to the National Assembly, meetings with prime ministers or even President Macron are among the opportunities offered by this select club, in addition to regular visits by cultural elites.

“We are treated incredibly well when you look at what we give,” recognizes Denis de Kergorlay, French President of the FHS, who reminded his American friends of the strong investment of the French State for heritage, during Richelieu’s visit. So why support a solid institution like the BnF? “Behind this gesture, there is the idea that France is the repository of a heritage that goes beyond it and concerns all of humanity, responds the manager. This was already Rockefeller’s talk when he helped rebuild Versailles and Reims after the First World War. »

An indirect influence on cultural institutions

The “American Friends” and other American philanthropic associations flourished in France thanks to the establishment, in the 1980s and 2000s, of a legal framework favorable to patronage. “The record of their financial aid remains modest, but their indirect effects on the cultural world are notable”, emphasizes Anne Monier. For the researcher, these associations contribute to the introduction of an economic and commercial logic in the management of French cultural institutions. A development that concerns “the whole life of the institution”, from the conservatives “who must now also be fundraisers” up to the reception or maintenance professions “which can be mobilized outside the usual hours for private parties”.

Transformation of institutional practices

A culture of patronage is taking hold, where the border between private and public becomes a porous zone. “Our patrons do not want to be satisfied with paying a check, they want to be associated with the projects of the institutions: visit the construction sites, climb on the scaffolding, attend restoration workshops, be face to face with the works…”, explains Isabelle de Laroullière, who examines the files at the FHS. “It’s a learning notes Karen Archer, head of development at the FHS, but French institutions are in the process of aligning themselves with American practices. »

This transformation is not without question, against a background of competition and reductions in public subsidies. For cultural professionals, it is difficult to set limits in a game that involves interaction, observes Anne Monier. Sometimes, even, it is the cultural institutions that anticipate the will and the desire of American patrons, for fear of losing them. This is how you change a cultural policy…”


40 years of the French Heritage Society

The French Heritage Society (FHS) has about a hundred members in France and about 400 in the United States. Membership costs, depending on the various membership statuses, between $250 (€256) and $15,000 (€15,400) per year.

In forty years, the FHS has raised more than $14 million for the historic preservation of public and private monuments open to visitors, including more than 2.6 million for the restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris.

Its educational program has helped 530 scholars and organized more than 80 trips for its members.

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