As Raina descends the grand staircase, a picture of vivacity in her slacks, Oxford shirt and dreadlocks, her hand is extended before she gets to where I am waiting. As if she were welcoming a long-time friend into her home, she greets me in fluent French, and finds a comfortable sofa to sit down for our chat in one of the many handsome (and temporarily empty) rooms.
Currently undergoing a profound refocusing of its place in the Parisian cultural universe, with Executive Director Bianca Roberts, the Mona Bismarck American Center in Paris (MBAC) picks up the torch of the original American center founded almost 30 years ago with the mission of promoting American art in France. On the apt address of Avenue de New York, the venue enjoys a prime location on the right bank of the Seine near the Modern Art museum and the Palais de Tokyo, directly across from the Eiffel tower and the Musée de Quai Branly.
As we sit down in the handsome reception hall, with the fading sunlight receding through the elegant windows, the conversation flows naturally from French into English. Raina’s casual and warm manner belies her depth of experience. She was the former deputy editor of SOME/THINGS Magazine, served as Associate Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, and the Andy Warhol Museum.
So, congratulations on your appointment to the position of Artistic Director. How are you settling in Paris?
I’ve just arrived, and I love it, my children are in school, it’s great.
Let’s talk shop then, what is your vision for the centre?
I want everyone to rediscover the MBAC, for it to feel welcoming, like a home away from home. I think of “Americanness” as a concept rather than a definitive thing. It’s in how someone identifies being American, ethnically, nationally, rationally – grappling with all the elements that create national identity. It’s a sensibility and approach rather than a passport.
Why an American art centre in Paris?
I don’t mean this in a dismissive way at all, but in the best way possible, my answer is: why not? Obviously the relationship is different now from what it was in the late 18th century, but these long held cultural and friendship ties means that we are nearest to each other, it’s like introducing yourself to long-lost relatives.
What is your role as the new artistic director?
I propose and outline the events program, and plan the exhibitions according to the program, in a playful and intelligent response to the mission of the MBAC. We have a curatorial role, having no permanent collection per se. The year 2016 will mark the return of the exhibitions, spring and fall, dedicated to 20th and 21st century American artists, bringing to France the multiple and sometimes contradictory facets of the country, and giving these voices an opportunity to be heard. The exhibitions will be both themed and monographic, and fluid in their conception, the building offers such a fascinating space. We intend to rediscover it with work that is not ‘bound to the wall’.
As an indication of what we can expect in the future, on the occasion of the COP21 United Nations conference on climate change, the MBAC is displaying an environmental light installation by American artist Andrea Polli, on the façade every evening after 6pm until 13 December. Using CO2 sensors and synchronized lighting, Particle Falls is a visual representation of the air in the immediate environment, physically changing in real time in relation to the amount of pollution particles it detects.
The MBAC is also constantly interacting with the main cultural institutions in Paris on events featuring American culture, as in the case of a round table organised on December 12 during the American photographer Philipe Halsman exhibition at the Jeu de Paume.
About the MBAC
Legendary socialite Mona Bismarck (1897-1983) was known for her elegance and wealth, but also as someone who defied convention, in her own incomparable style. A matron of the arts, she was surrounded by the likes of Salvador Dalí and Cecil Beaton, figures like President Rossevelt, Eisenhower, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Princess Grace of Monaco, and an honour-roll of writers that included Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams. She was Givenchy’s and Balenciaga’s muse. Mona died in 1983; her will established the Mona Bismarck American Center for Art and Culture in Paris.
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