Here’s the thing about Roland Celette, the cultural attaché of the French Embassy since 2001: There’s not enough time in the day to talk with all the people in Washington who want to sing his praises. It’s a rare thing indeed to have that sort of status in the nation’s capital, where pro forma and half-hearted accolades flourish. In the past few weeks, as Celette quietly made public that he would be returning to France, the city’s cultural community has been shaken. Not only does his country lose one of its most effective assets here, but Washington loses a visionary who considered it his mandate to give the city la grande bouffe of French culture.
• “His interest in the National Gallery of Art was not only professional, it was personal. In addition to facilitating support and promotion of French programming at the Gallery, he was a familiar face on the weekends, arriving on his bike to attend films, concerts, and lectures on all topics. We will miss him.” — Earl “Rusty” Powell, director of the National Gallery of Art
• “From my perspective at the Kennedy Center, he’s had a tremendous influence on our programming. His legacy will be increased collaboration between the cultural sector and the diplomatic corps. He was such an incredible connector and instigator of wonderful projects. He would take the helm and make it happen.” — Garth Ross, the Kennedy Center’s director of performing arts for everyone
• “We worked together to create the Kids Euro Festival. He has been the strongest advocate and most effective advocate for French culture in the United States. He created programs that will continue, programs that have affected literally thousands of people. Many institutions do that, but he’s done it in a way that is participatory for Americans and people of other cultures in Washington.” — Carol Bogash, vice president of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and former head of the Smithsonian Associates
• “He brought new French films, introduced us to musicians in the jazz, classical, and contemporary genres, engaged Washington’s schools in cultural exchanges, and educated us about wines. The complete piano sonatas were played by French pianists in one cycle over many days. A short drive to La Maison Française [the embassy on Reservoir Road] and you were in France. I can’t think of any other embassy that has the variety and frequency of programming that Roland has orchestrated.” — James Spellman, a fan, who took advantage of many of the programs Celette created
• “Roland is the quintessential arts professional. He has a vast knowledge of and passion for the performing arts. The quality (and quantity!) of the Embassy’s presentations are breathtaking. Roland has been a great colleague and collaborator with WPAS and will be missed by all.” — Neale Perl, president of the Washington Performing Arts Society
His admirers go on like that, lauding a man who is outwardly quiet and unassuming, tall, bespectacled, turned out, and fit. He exudes curiosity, intellect, and appreciation. As he moves among the city’s cultural establishments he has the aura of a sleek sailboat slicing through the water, not disturbing the natural beauty around him but pulling from it what he needs to go forward. From his home on the embassy grounds he takes off on not a boat but on his Cannondale bicycle to all parts of the area. He rides it anywhere from 50 to 100 miles a week, his favorite route being south on the George Washington Parkway to Mount Vernon. “I love Mount Vernon,” he says. “I love Alexandria, too. You really feel something there. It’s a gem.”
So who exactly is Roland Celette, and how did he get here? Over lunch at Bourbon Steak—soup, a hamburger he cuts into with a knife and fork—he talks modestly about himself. He is 57 years old. He is from Saint-Étienne, which he calls “the French Pittsburgh.” He worked for a long time in Japan, which he loves. He returns often. He came to Washington from a post as cultural attaché in Cambodia. Was the job here something he pursued? Not really. “The ministry in Paris proposed me,” he says, and that was that. He has worked with four ambassadors to Washington—François Bujon de L’Estang, Jean-David Levitte, Pierre Vimont, and François Delattre, the current ambassador. He has been intrigued by each of them.
“All my ambassadors were very interested in culture, very cultivated, very supportive,” he says. “L’Estang was a jazz person. Once he brought me to Arena Stage for an evening of blues from the ’20s and ’30s. He knew every song by heart.” Levitte, he says, “was very interested in everything.” He recalls giving the boss a CD of a Uruguayan pianist, a woman in her eighties, performing Schumann. The pianist had been a student of the renowned French pianist Alfred Cortot. That was on a Friday. “He called me on Saturday morning and said, ‘This is exceptional.’ We decided then to invite her to perform at the French Embassy. It was a magical moment.”
Celette recalls that Vimont was a private guitarist and a huge fan of American guitar music, particularly James Taylor. When he and Vimont went to Memphis for the presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, he says, the ambassador slipped away to visit the Gibson guitar factory. He knew that when Vimont could, he’d set aside work to visit music clubs, particularly in New Orleans. Of Delattre, Celette says, “He’s very eager to be sure American people know about what is going on in France in contemporary art. We have this legacy, the Impressionists, but we need to show what is going on today.”
From his current post in Brussels as secretary general of the European External Action Service, Vimont writes, “For me, Roland has been much more than a collaborator; he was an eye opener and a constant force for arts, life, and joy.” He cited his fundraising skills (Carol Bogash called them “American” in cleverness), his ability to coordinate smoothly with the bureaucracy in Paris, his ability to listen and make new friends, and his creativity. “The man has one new idea per second, more or less.”
That would explain his productivity. When he arrived in 2001, the cultural attaché’s office in Washington was smaller and less involved in outreach. Now Celette’s staff of 15 handles an estimated 250 events a year, divided almost equally between programs inside and outside the embassy. “I don’t like to call them ‘my’ staff, actually,” he says. “They are the people working with me. They are wonderful. Some started as interns and were so good we found a way for them to stay.” Under his leadership the embassy has produced film festivals, music festivals, wine and food festivals, dance and theater festivals. His office has a mailing list of more than 30,000 people, most of them in the Washington area.
Ambassador Delattre says he “cannot overstate” the role Celette played on behalf of French culture, putting it “at the heart of cultural activities in Washington.” But no replacement has been named as yet. “His successor will have big shoes to fill and will have the task of continuing—despite the major budgetary constraints—the momentum that has been created.”
When he arrived in Washington in 2001, what did Celette notice about the city and its culture? After a long pause, he says, “Well, I was impressed by the big institutions. I connected very quickly with the Kennedy Center, the National Gallery of Art, and the Library of Congress. Wonderful staff. Serious staff. What I was impressed with, too, is you have so many foundations, so many active sources of culture in the city.”
Celette recalls that he was here for what he calls “the French bashing, the freedom fries” of 2003, when France did not support the Bush administration in the buildup to the Iraq War and Republicans in Congress, along with other protests, had the menus in House restaurants substitute the word “freedom” for “French” before fries and toast. There were calls for boycotts of French products. Ambassador Levitte suggested to him that an antidote would be “more cultural diplomacy.” That’s when he first worked with Garth Ross to create the Festival of France at the Kennedy Center. It was a success, Celette says, “because it showed the depth of the relationship between the US and France.” For another program, Celette and Ross traveled in France for a week, notably to a street performance festival, and from that brought 15 companies to the Kennedy Center in 2008 to showcase street art at the Millennium Stage.
Celette says he has not had the privilege of meeting the men who have served as President while he’s been here, but he has met some Washingtonians who made a lasting impression. He has warm words about many, including Ross, Bogash, and Powell (the last of which, Celette says, “has always been inspiring to me”). He mentions Ina Ginsburg. “She was the assistant to Andy Warhol,” he says, “and she has so many stories. She made many good connections for me and gave me very good advice. Washington is a big theater; people change, but the characters are the same. You need people to help you understand how it works.”
James Oberstar, when he was in Congress, was head of the Congressional French Caucus. “He would recite French poems spontaneously!” says Celette. He’s also a fan of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. “He knows so much about French philosophers, because there is a strong connection between French philosophers and the American constitution,” he says. “Justice Breyer also knows French cinema better than anybody.”
Celette is a cinema buff and prefers to see his films at the National Gallery of Art. He commends Peggy Parsons, curator of NGA film programs, for running “amazing collections” of films. “You have the avant-garde, you have the first years of cinema, films from all over the world. You can go on Saturday and Sunday.” And he does, on his bicycle.
When asked to name a favorite cultural institution in Washington, he is confounded. There are so many. But he will allow that he adores the Phillips Collection. “I worked so well with the Phillips that they gave me a lifetime membership,” he says. “I am very proud of that.” Then he quickly jumps to the Shakespeare Theater, the Studio Theater. “I’ve seen wonderful plays here by Jean Genet, [Jean-Paul] Sartre, performed with American actors. They had very good understanding.”
With all this cultural knowledge dancing in his head and his soul, I wonder if he has a favorite epoch, and he launches into an eloquent explanation of just how he see’s the world. “I try to find the modernity of everything. No matter when it was. Modernity is innovation and imagination. It’s so difficult to have a new idea, a real idea. We are surrounded by things that are not really modern. They are a repetition of the past. Sometimes someone is bringing something new. That’s always my goal. To find something that is new, whatever the century.”
As friends and colleagues hear the news of Celette’s departure, they wonder why he is leaving Washington. Was it the French election? No. “It is a decision made long before the election,” he says. The reason is family. He wants to be near his aging parents, who live in Clermont-Ferrand. He will teach French literature and work toward trying to find the $1 million seed money needed to start his own cultural foundation centered on youth and the arts.
Dorothy Kosinski, director of the Phillips Collection, says, “He’s been so terrific to us, to me. I can’t begin to tell you how I’ll miss him.” She ticks off a list of programs they created together, and marvels that in the depth of the recession he was unrelenting in seeing that a program got started featuring the cutting edge of European classical music, a program that’s about to begin its third year at the Phillips. “When everyone else is cutting back he comes to me and says, ‘This has to happen.’” She says he informed her of his plans to leave some time ago, but she was in denial. “I tried to pretend it wasn’t true, but it is, and it is sad for Washington.”
What will Celette miss most about Washington? “My friends,” he says. “But I invite everybody to come visit me.” Let’s hope he has lots of guest rooms.