Villa Albertine, a comprehensive cultural platform organized by the French Embassy in the US, encompasses a custom residency program, events, grants, an online media hub, a forthcoming physical magazine-book hybrid and so much more. Of their vast and inspired offerings, Villa Albertine’s residency—which has already opened pathways for 70+ artists, creators, cultural leaders and thinkers—is unlike anything that has come before it. Though it draws inspiration from the French Academy within Rome’s Villa Medici, it’s a future-forward concept of immense scale.
Villa Albertine is headquartered in NYC but its art residencies need not be. In fact, a free-form mentality suffuses the vision. As director Gaëtan Bruel explains, this is “not about an artist adapting to the residency, it’s about the residency adapting to the needs of an artist.” Artists choose where they need to be. And although typical residency lengths from the institution vary between one to three months, the team has approved residencies that will last up to five years.
“Our mission is to help renew the cultural ties between France and the US through art, action and programming,” Bruel says. “Earlier this year, we launched Villa Albertine, the biggest cultural endeavor ever taken by France—not only in the US, but abroad—in the last century.” Underscoring this drive to place creators around the US is the desire to demonstrate that France, in addition to being a patron of historic museums, is also a nation that supports artists today.
“The need [for a residency] was clear but the solution was not,” Bruel says of their early ideation, noting that they found it impossible to commit to one city. “Doing so does not match the reality of the US, which is both big and diverse. So the first challenge we had to face was to imagine how we could create an institution at the scale of this country—a screenwriter might prefer to go to Los Angeles, an architect might prefer to be in Chicago, a jazz musician might want to go to New Orleans.” Bruel developed a platform that can accommodate them all.
This flexibility extends beyond location. In fact, approved artists are offered carte blanche regarding resources for their needs. “The traditional model of an artist residency doesn’t match the individuality of artists any more,” Bruel says. “It’s unbearably standard. And yet, today, we are used to being considered as individuals. We wanted to bring that flexibility and a custom-made approach to each artist’s residency.”
Many of the ideas that inform the program were solidified during the early stages of the pandemic—from tactile organizational components to mission statements. “We believe that artists and creators need our support—and that we need their support, as well,” Bruel continues. “In such a time of crisis, their ability to help us understand the world we live in and how we can change it has become even more necessary. We look at this residency as a think tank. We use it as a way to pay attention to the meeting point of art and society.”
Remarkably, being French is not a criteria to apply, but having a collaborator or partner that is French (or even the support of a French organization) is required. “We are a French institution but we believe that culture is universal,” Bruel says. Further, there is no restriction in terms of discipline. Villa Albertine has partnered with visual artists, composers, digital producers, dance collectives and beyond. Bruel says he’d love to see chefs, museum directors, art historians and climate activists apply. Perhaps astonishingly, no resident is required to turn over a piece upon the completion of a residency, but in-person or on-the-ground research in support of an exploratory project is mandated for an application.
Bruel cites the residency of Stephanie Childress as a prime example of what they’re capable of achieving. “She was the youngest resident of the first season” he says. “She’s an orchestra conductor—and there are just a few women conducting orchestras. We wanted to provide her with the opportunity to work with the most prominent orchestras across the US.” For her residency, she travelled to eight US cities and worked with orchestras like the Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic and more.
Arguably the most intensive residency thus far has been that of photographer Nicolas Floc’h. “His project was to travel along the Mississippi River from the midwest to New Orleans in order to capture the color of the river at various points,” Bruel says. “He believes that in the color of the river you can understand everything from pollution and environmental challenges to its [societal] identity in that area.” Floc’h didn’t need one hotel, he needed a van to travel in for six months. Villa Albertine helped fund and organize it.
Thus far, Villa Albertine has put residents in 40 cities and territories across the US. They have housed artists everywhere from the French ambassador’s residence in Washington, DC to private homes around the country. That said, their base of operations in NYC is a microcosm of their grand ambition and careful planning. On the Upper East Side, they work from a replica of a Venetian palazzo from the beginning of the 20th century, built by Americans. “As it was very Italian, we knew we needed a contemporary French touch,” Bruel explains. “Instead of turning the building into a gallery or museum, we worked with French designers—both established and emerging—for unique pieces, often made specifically for the Villa Albertine.”
Villa Albertine is an epicenter of innovation and an organization to watch for continued inspiration. For artists and creators, it’s a gateway to opportunity. Each fall, Villa Albertine will launch a call for applications for the year following the next (this November, they’ll take applications for 2024). Further, residencies do not conclude with a parting of ways. “We wanted to go beyond the idea of a residency as a parenthesis—where you go back to your own life,” Bruel concludes. “We want this to last and be in service to the resident. We want to create a community that will support creators.”
Hero image of Villa Albertine, courtesy of French Cultural Services by Beowulf Sheehan