American Friends Musée d’Orsay (AFMO) celebrated its community of art lovers and France enthusiasts at their annual gala weekend, 20–23 October. Titled “A Weekend in Paris”, it was far more than that. Keeping with AFMO’s tradition of celebrating art and friendship, both long-time supporters and new members alike experienced a fabulous programme of private and exclusive access to the most prestigious homes, collections and national treasures in Paris.
Returning this year, I witnessed this celebration of art and friendship as AFMO opened doors to places and experiences that one can only dream about.
At the end of last year’s benefit, Verena Thornton, Executive Director of AFMO, promised that this year’s gala would be “the best event ever.” Her words came true. This year’s sold-out gala was a testament to the warm welcome and personal touch offered to all AFMO members. As Ms Thornton said, “AFMO continues to have a soul. With a steady increase in attendees, we welcome guests from the U.S. and Europe. Every guest matters. They are the success of AFMO.”
AFMO Board Member Susan Schoenfeld Harrington agreed, stating that “returning every year to celebrate art and friendship with AFMO is like old home week. And every year they up their game.”
Since its inception in 2009 as a non-profit public charity, AFMO has been dedicated to raising public awareness and financial support for the Musée d’Orsay and its sister institution, the Musée de l’Orangerie. AFMO’s many notable accomplishments include the conservation of Auguste Bartholdi’s small-scale Statue of Liberty gracing the nave of the Orsay, as well as raising funds to support acquisitions, special projects, restoration, education and renovations. AFMO’s support is key to transforming the visitor experience and has expanded to include more programmes, all of which support the great mission of AFMO: making both museums’ exhibitions and collections more accessible.
The Musée d’Orsay has a celebrated collection of Impressionist paintings— the movement’s artists, such as Claude Monet, depicted the transformation of the modern world in a way that allowed audiences to connect emotionally to the art. AFMO has taken this emotional connection to the next level, helping to reshape the future of the Orsay and l’Orangerie. AFMO’s goal is to ensure that these museums continue to innovate and inspire visitors in a changing world. To that end, AFMO provides significant funding for the contemporary art programme, inviting the most innovative contemporary artists to present exhibitions and installations.
Current installations include Kehinde Wiley at the Orsay, whose exhibit “An Archeology of Silence” highlights dramatic social issues through his contemporary version of classical creations. At the l’Orangerie, Mickalene Thomas’s “Avec Monet” showcases three new large-scale pieces, each of which highlights her fascination with the French Impressionists and her contemporary counterpoint.
The parade of intimate encounters with Paris’s wonderful treasures began Friday morning with a full menu of choices. Thanks to the connections cultivated by Ms Thornton and her dream team staff, members were graced with entry to places not usually open to the public. Not only did AFMO provide the entrée, but also access to museums’ leadership and curators. Such access included privately curated tours of the Orsay, Orangerie, and Palais Galliera, as well as an exclusive visit of the Orsay through the eyes of its President, Christophe Leribault. Guests were transfixed as they listened to his insights into the museum and his bold vision for its future. M. Leribault explained that “works in the museum are not dead things. They are part of modernity. It is important to have contemporary artists whose works interpret our collections.”
Jewellery enthusiasts were hard-pressed to choose between two choices: privileged access to the exclusive apartment Le 26V located on the fifth floor of the jewellery boutique Boucheron, a place where innovation becomes reality, or a rare visit to Cartier’s secret workshops, where the Maison crafts its most exceptional pieces, some of which take years to complete.
Fashionistas relished the opportunity to receive private entrée to La Galerie Dior and immerse themselves in the spirit of Parisian haute couture. Guests were enthralled as they entered 30 Avenue Montaigne, the historic Dior location which for 70 years served as the source for Christian Dior’s iconic collections.
If this feast of choices was not enough to make one’s head spin, AFMO members were offered the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, closed to the public since the devastating fire of 2019. At the heart of the worksite, participants met with project managers, architects and craftsmen who explained the restoration project. Up close and personal, guests witnessed the miracle of how after over 800 years, Notre Dame is still standing!
These morning visits left guests in awe as well as hungry. Champagne, hors-d’oeuvres, and a lovely lunch awaited as invitees were ushered into the sumptuously decorated 18th-century salons of the original Hôtel d’Evreux overlooking the Place Vendôme.
After lunch, the magic continued as AFMO members were regaled with more incredible choices. Maison Christian Dior opened their fabled archives to a privileged few. With an intimate view of M. Dior’s creations, perfumes, accessories, and sketches from the first collection, it became clear that the roots of haute couture are more important now than ever.
A private French pastry session at the Ritz Escoffier School of the famed Ritz Paris was a tantalising opportunity for those into the culinary arts to learn some of the secrets of French patisserie and devour them as well.
Exclusive visits to private homes and studios rounded out the afternoon choices, among which was La Maison, Louis Vuitton’s home and atelier, in Asnières, outside of Paris. Still the heart and soul of this iconic luxury brand, the Maison pays homage to its founder and highlights how his visionary spirit lives on today.
Following a lovely Friday evening cocktail reception, Saturday’s delights continued with more private visits as discreet Parisian connoisseurs opened their homes to share their collections. On a larger scale, another thrilling choice was a private tour of Paris+, by Art Basel, making its first appearance in Paris.
History buffs enjoyed a privately led heritage walk through the cobbled streets of Montmartre, still evoking the Belle Époque village atmosphere that appealed to the artists of the 19th and 20th centuries.
These options were capped off by an incredible private visit to the Château de Fontainebleau, a favourite residence and hunting lodge of French kings and emperors. Indeed, Napoleon called Fontainebleau, “the true residence of Kings, the house of the centuries.” AFMO guests discovered some of the château’s secret wonders not open to the public.
Those who preferred a different type of sensorial and educational experience visited the Cave du Château of Prince Robert of Luxembourg, owner of the prestigious Château Haut-Brion. In his beautiful wine cellar, participants celebrated heritage, savoir-faire, and art de vivre.
Saturday evening, anticipation peaked as guests donned their finest cocktail attire to attend the elegant gala evening at the Musée d’Orsay. Upon entering the grand nave of the Orsay, invitees were at liberty to enjoy a private viewing of three extraordinary exhibitions: “Edvard Munch. A Poem of Life, Love and Death”, “Rosa Bonheur (1822 – 1899),” and “Kehinde Wiley: An Archeology of Silence,” all of which resonate with many societal issues today.
Reuniting in the grand nave, guests sipped champagne and mingled as they absorbed that certain “pinch me” feeling, having private access to some of the world’s greatest art. Notable figures present included U.S. Ambassador Denise Campbell Bauer and previous U.S Ambassador Jamie McCourt. A memorable highlight was the address by artist Kehinde Wiley, whose works currently grace the nave of the Orsay.
Before ascending to the magnificent, gilded ballroom for an elegant dinner catered by Alain Ducasse Receptions, guests received an enthusiastic greeting from Elizabeth Kehler, Chair of AFMO’s Board of Directors. Ms. Kehler welcomed all “to a splendid, record-breaking, sold-out evening supporting two of the world’s greatest museums, the Orsay and l’Orangerie.” She noted that “AFMO raises funds to support special Orsay projects and has, for almost the last four years, funded contemporary art at both museums.” She added with pleasure, “AFMO puts the fun back in fundraising!”
AFMO’s Weekend in Paris culminated Sunday morning with their traditional breakfast at Le Bristol Paris and one additional treat, a privately guided tour of the Parc Monceau. While delighting in buttery croissants and an array of French pastries, guests emoted about the strong bonds and shared camaraderie felt by all who shared this magical weekend.
Attendee Barbara Rom noted, “Even if you are not steeped in the arts, the weekend is not intimidating. It’s been a joy to discover a sampling of all types of skills, arts, and craftsmanship.”
AFMO Board member Diana Mack agreed, “AFMO isn’t just about supporting great art. AFMO brings together people with a shared interest. It is about friendship.”
Fortunately, by becoming a member of AFMO, you too can enjoy this celebration of art and friendship, as well as the many year-round events that take place both in Paris and the U.S.. In addition, one of the advantages that come with membership is priority no-wait access to both temporary and permanent exhibitions. Members also benefit from complimentary Patron’s Pass Tours — private access to exhibitions guided by museum curators when the museums are closed to the public.
Along with the appreciation of having doors opened and supporting Franco-American friendship, members experience the pride of preserving French art for future generations of art enthusiasts and making a deeply meaningful impact as part of the continuing transformation of the world’s premier Impressionist museum.
Details on membership can be found by visiting the website: aforsay.org
Lead photo credit : American Friends Musée d’Orsay Gala © Krystal Kenney
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