I met Margery Arent Safir the first time I went to an Arts Arena event a few years ago and I was very impressed with the calibre of sophistication of the event she had produced. I have attended many of the events in past years and have always been inspired when I left them. Here is a fascinating interview of someone who has made a most extraordinary and unexpected life for herself in Paris.The extensive interview is in two parts, today and Monday.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Washington, D.C. In the much-characterized suburb of Chevy Chase.
When and why did you move to Paris?
I never have really “moved” here; I just find myself here and have no desire to be elsewhere. In other words, I never made a decision to move to Paris. In the late 1970s, I was finishing a book on the Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda that I co-authored with Professor Manuel Duran of Yale. Latin American tradition has it that often governments send as their ambassadors their leading literary figures. This had been the case with Neruda, who had been Salvador Allende’s Ambassador to France.
After Augusto Pinochet led a coup d’état in Chile ousting Allende and Neruda’s almost simultaneous death of cancer, the Pinochet forces ransacked Neruda’s houses; Chile was not, in short, the recommended place to be, and even less so if you were doing research on Pablo Neruda. So I came to Paris. I knew many of the Latin American writers living in Paris, and they in turn, had known Neruda. One could say that I came to Paris on my way to Chile and got off on the wrong (or right) plane; I spoke accent-less Spanish and not a word of French. This is the official answer to your question. Happily, there is also a less official answer: I was very close to the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, and he lived in Paris.
You teach at American University of Paris. What do you teach?
Comparative Literature. Within that broad category, I specialize in Spanish and Latin American literature; and, bizarrely enough, my personal research is in the area of sciences and literature. Right now, I'm teaching Spanish Golden Age (16-17th century) literature, which gave us not only the picaresque novel as a genre but also Don Quixote as the first modern novel and the legend of Don Juan. All of these literary "myths" have appeared in world literature everywhere and in every era. Just to take the most well known examples of the Don Juan myth: Moliere's Dom Juan and Mozart's Don Giovanni. We study the original, where the literary myth was born. It's great fun.
However, what I teach most often is 20-21st century Latin American literature, and there, I confess, I specialize in what are known as "dead or elderly white males": Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Manuel Puig (Kiss of the Spider Woman), Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, and the recent Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.
I also teach a course that is a personal favorite: “Discovery and Conquest of the New World,” where we study the original 15-16th century historical documents of people like Columbus and Hernán Cortés, and then read 20-21st century literary texts that deal with the same events from the perspective of fiction and 500 years of hindsight. I do a lot of interdisciplinary work---which one can also see in the programming of the Arts Arena---and this course is cross-listed for credit as a literature course and a history course. I've also taught a course on the literature and culture of war---where I invited as guest lecturer—to handle "war" and military theorists such as Sun Tzu or Clausewitz--- a senior officer from US Special Forces, Green Beret---albeit one with a Masters degree in French literature. Very interesting course in terms of student reactions. Voilà, some of the things I teach.
Then there is a basic introduction to literature, criticism, and writing, a course that all literature professors at all levels at the university teach. It’s very appealing to confront business majors, for instance, with their first exposure to classical literature, and they often end up being the best students because they know how to read a text analytically. It may be a financial contract in their experience, but the same basic skill of critical analysis is essential to literature.
For a good number of years I was also on the Bureau de direction of a research group at Paris III, Sorbonne-Nouvelle, focusing on Latin American cultural studies. And, of course, like every academic, I publish.
How did you get the idea of starting The Arts Arena and what were some of the first programs you had?
I had wanted to start something like the Arts Arena as soon as the American Center in Paris closed it doors in 1996. In fact, feeling somewhat like a cultural vulture circling above, when I heard about the closing, I went to some people and said, “Buy that building.” It was Frank Gehry before Bilbao, and it was in the area that would be built up around Bercy, across from the new Bibliothèque Nationale (today, it is the Cinémathèque française). My idea was to take up where the American Center had left off and go beyond, and I felt that The American University of Paris was perfectly poised to do so.
This was not to be, at least not in that building.
However, when AUP’s very entrepreneurial president Gerardo della Paolera introduced the vision of a campus on the Ile Seguin, home of the old Renault factory, I went to him and said, “This is the time. If we’re going to build a new campus, we can build a building and create this center for the arts and culture with a France/US orientation.” In the end, the Ile Seguin project did not materialize, but he gave me the go ahead for a planning year for the Arts Arena; AUP’s then dean and current president, Celeste Schenck, supported the effort and has continued that support.
From the first the Arts Arena was an interdisciplinary initiative. We wanted to energize connections and break down ghettos both within the arts and its many disciplines, and between the arts and the “real” world of finance, business, cultural policy, sciences, technology, and development. As one of the research and intellectual resources of AUP--- whose student body and faculty represent over 100 different nationalities--- the Arts Arena was created also as a laboratory for thinking and presenting the arts and issues from a multicultural perspective. And beyond the arts in and of themselves, we were concerned about social issues, so we created a Forum for Culture and Society, with talks by Dena Kaye on philanthropy, arts and sustainable development; Fred Ritchen on photography and human rights; Berna Huebner’s film on Alzheimer’s and the arts, I Remember Better When I Paint. Among the programs we’ve become most proud of is our partnership with the United Nations Association Film Festival, whereby for three years we have shown in Paris a selection of films on issues of public concern. We have also had renowned composers, curators, film series, artists. We have partnered with the Bilingual Acting Workshop to promote young artists through New Voices, New Projects; we’ve partnered with UNESCO on Activist Arts; we’ve partnered with the New Museum of Women in the Arts. And we established early on, thanks to its remarkable dean, Robert Storr, a partnership with the Yale University School of Art, whereby annually we hold the Yale Arts Arena Lecture, and in this capacity we’ve hosted to standing room only crowds four talks by Dean Storr himself, one of the most influential voices in contemporary art.
We established from the start the policy that cultural events should be free and open to the public; it was our policy that no one should be turned away for lack of resources. We are enormously grateful for AUP’s support towards our operating budget; but we are totally dependent on outside donations, foundation grants, and memberships to carry out our programs. When we established an Arts Arena membership, we asked our people to join, not only for the benefits of ArtsArenaPLUS, our special events program for members, but also to support by their membership that policy of free and open events. That includes our offering a reception after each event, where speakers and the audience can continue a conversation and people with like interests can, for lack of a better word, network. I think that’s important.
While I’ve jumped around here, the beginning of the Arts Arena was January 2007. First and foremost after securing the support of AUP, I was enormously fortunate to assemble what I think has to be called a stellar Arts Advisory Board, people who were hugely successful in their field of art, and yet who accepted the idea of dedicating their time and knowledge to this unheard-of start-up, which is what the Arts Arena then was. And, in anticipating your final question in this interview, it was Paris.
You ask about some of the first programs. Our very first event was done in partnership with NYU and called “New Work from New York." Three very distinguished members of the faculty of the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU came to Paris to discuss exactly what the title of the event announced: an Obie-award winning playwright; the former picture editor of The New York Times Magazine, founder of Pixel Press, and the “guru” of the digital revolution with his scholarly writing; a film editor who had worked with Martin Scorsese and was now making her own documentary films. For a newly born initiative with no staff and no funding, this was pretty good. As one of our Board members would later say, “I was there when the Arts Arena was born; but then it seemed to go from infancy to adulthood without passing through adolescence.”
Our second event was a partnership with the Aspen Institute, specifically their new initiative in cultural diplomacy. Celeste Schenck had introduced me to Damien Pwono from the Congo. We had breakfast and discovered that the initiative he was creating at Aspen was very much in line with what we were creating at the Arts Arena. We decided to do something. The result was the launching of a global initiative on cultural diplomacy, organized at the Cercle Interallié and with the participation of some 200 speakers, many quite well known: Culture and Conflict /Culture on the Move. We stubbornly believe that the arts can open up dialogues even where governments have failed, and it is essential that the arts play this role. Have you ever seen people at a concert? They are enraptured by the music. Perhaps there are ideological enemies sitting shoulder to shoulder in that concert hall, and for a moment sharing something; one can hope that they might speak at intermission. This sounds very naïve, but I am a true believer in the power of aesthetic experience, and, as the slogan at the 2007 Venice Biennale went, “There are no foreigners in art.”
Since then, for the Arts Arena it’s been amazing. Not only amazing but really moving, because enormously well-known people accepted to come to this then totally unknown organization and participate. Some our early programs included an actors workshop with Elizabeth Kemp of the Actors Studio of New York, a publication on George Balanchine, the creator of American ballet and an evening with his star dancers Violette Verdy and Suki Schorer. We hosted a talk on architects as activists with the curator the US Pavilion at the Venice-Biennale Architecture, 2008. Françoise Heilbrun, then Senior Curator of Photography at the Musée d’Orsay; a top-flight French team of young specialists in new media for the arts and museums; an evening of performance as research with London Metropolitan University; the Editor-in- Chief of the then new French monthly BOOKS, and Robert Gottlieb, the legendary editor of The New Yorker and Editor-in- Chief of Simon & Schuster publishers and of Alfred A. Knopf. We had Obie-winning playwright Len Jenkin with actor Andrew Robinson (Dirty Harry, Star Trek, Law & Order, X-Files, The Practice), reading and directing Robinson and other actors in his latest work.
That was the first year of programs. Then, we had a game changer that can be credited to one man, Eric Thazard, managing partner of Door Studios, an haute couture photography studio one block from the Bastille. We partnered with Door Studios for the photography show Man on the Moon at the Palais de Tokyo, and since then, through the generosity of Door, the studio has been the Arts Arena’s home away from home, permitting us to create performance events, screenings, and exhibitions that would have been beyond our reach in a university setting.
We have hosted the international director of Asian Art for Christie’s, Dr. Amin Jaffer, on “Made for Maharajas,” presented a Merchant-Ivory film festival with Oscar-wining director James Ivory, and hosted performance art from Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center and Performa 09. We’ve had Director emerita of the Frick Collection in New York Anne Poulet and other museum directors, a talk on “The Renaissance Collector” by an eminent art historian, curator, and collector of Renaissance art; and an evening with Michael Nyman, the acclaimed composer of minimalist music, well known to the general public for his many award-winning movie scores, including the soundtrack to Jane Campion’s The Piano; also, French artist Daniel Buren (Palais Royal) and star curator Laurent Le Bon, celebrated screenplay writer Jean-Claude Carrière, and composer Jonathan Harvey; a good number of dance events as well, ranging from the Balanchine dancers to dancers from the Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris to contemporary choreographers Christopher Hampson and Richard Siegal to dance filmmaker Daniel Conrad.
Those were our first two years, thanks to the generosity of the top quality figures in the arts. Nobody is more deeply touched than I am in seeing how these established cultural figures who have nothing to gain by their association with us, have joined us simply because they feel we have an exciting project. In a world that doesn’t always make it easy, it is extraordinary to be able to see one’s faith in the best of human behavior renewed.
And that is really the essence of the Arts Arena adventure. It’s been an incredible trip for me personally as well; after all, by training I’m a Professor of Comparative Literature. All the rest is on the job training.
Please tell us about some of the upcoming events for spring?
Well, we’re late in the spring now, having already held most of our events for this “season.” We’ve had a talk on the bad boy of American letters, Philip Roth, a 48-hour marathon event with theater artist Robert Wilson, which included his speaking, films, and the premiere of a photography show of the original 1976 pictures of Einstein on the Beach, the opera by Wilson and Philip Glass that is just now starting a new world tour, the first in 20 years. We’re very pleased that this exhibition will now go on to the Barbican Centre in London. Last week, we participated in the European Film Festival L’Europe autour de l’Europe, screening the Russian film The Crime of Boris Pasternak, followed by commentary by the film’s director and world-renowned Russian to English translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who had re-translated Pasternak’s “scandalous” novel Doctor Zhivago in 2010 (Their translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was chosen a few years ago as Ophrah’s book of the summer!). Next week, we have a private visit to the stunning new 1,000 square meter studio of artist Isabelle de Borchgrave in Brussels; she will give us a tour of her new exhibition, followed by a luncheon with her in the studio. She makes the most amazing costumes out of paper--- when I say “costumes,” I mean period costumes, elaborate dresses as if one were at court. Her show at the San Francisco Museum was hugely successful and prolonged. On May 11-12 we’ll do our third presentation of the UN Association Film Festival wherein we screen five films over two days, have panel discussions, and a reception with directors, scholars, etc. As I mentioned, this has turned out to be one of the most rewarding and popular events that we’ve done, and we’re committed to it. So that takes us up to mid-May, and our “season” continues through June with other confirmed events. (I say “confirmed” because it has happened that we have a full schedule and someone presents me with a project so compelling, that I say simply, “We have to do it.” And you never know when that is going to happen.)
Click here to read more about the Arts Arena events
In addition to my Eye Prefer Paris Tours, we now offer Eye Prefer New York Tours, 3-hour walking tours of New York's best neighborhoods including Soho, Meatpacking/West Village & Tribeca. Tours cost $195 for up to 3 people and $65 for each additional person.Come take a bit of the Big Apple on an Eye Prefer New York Tour!
Come experience my blog ìliveî with my Eye Prefer Paris Tours, which are 3-hour walking tours I lead. The Eye Prefer Paris Tour includes many of the places I have written about such as small museums & galleries, restaurants, cafes & food markets, secret addresses, fashion & home boutiques, parks, and much more.Tours cost 195 euros for up to 3 people, and 65 euros for each additional person. I look forward to meeting you on my tours and it will be my pleasure and delight to show you my insiders Paris. www.eyepreferparistours.com
New! Eye Prefer Paris Cooking Classes
I am happy to announce the launch of Eye Prefer Paris Cooking Classes. Come take an ethnic culinary journey with me and chef and caterer Charlotte Puckette, co-author of the bestseller The Ethnic Paris Cookbook (with Olivia Kiang-Snaije). First we will shop at a Paris green-market for the freshest ingredients and then return to Charlotteís professional kitchen near the Eiffel Tower to cook a three-course lunch. After, we will indulge in the delicious feast we prepared along with hand-selected wines.
Cost: 185 euros per person (about $240)
Time: 9:30AM- 2PM (approximately 4 1/2 hours)
Location: We will meet by a metro station close to the market
Class days: Tuesday,Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday
Minimum of 2 students, maximum 6 students.
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