France honors alumna for arts contributions

| September 11, 2012

Elizabeth “Liz” Glassman ’71 will flatly tell you that her junior year abroad changed her life.

She arrived in Paris in fall 1969 as an international relations major from Sweet Briar College eying a career in diplomacy.

“I went back my senior year as an art history major,” she said by phone from her Chicago office at the Terra Foundation for American Art. “I was seduced by the discipline and the excitement of looking at original masterpieces.”

Elizabeth Glassman, president and CEO of the Terra Foundation. Photo by Nathan Weber.

Nor was Glassman immune to France’s charms, then or in the ensuing years. Her mission as president and CEO of Terra is to share American art with the rest of the world. Yet the foundation has a special relationship with France that dates back to 1992, when founder Daniel Terra opened a museum in Giverny. Since Glassman became the organization’s leader in 2001, she has demonstrated her love for the country through the foundation’s extensive work there.

The French government took notice. Not long ago, she opened a letter informing her that she has been named an officer in the Order of Arts and Letters. The distinction, signified by a medal corresponding to the rank awarded, recognizes “eminent artists and writers, and people who have contributed significantly to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world.”

It was a surprise, she says, though she does remember a request for biographical information from the culture ministry about two years ago.

“We have an office in Paris. I called them and said, ‘What does this mean? Who do I write to say yes?’ ” she recalled. “One of my associates there told me that the [French] artist Rosa Bonheur was the first woman to receive the honor.”

In Bonheur’s day, achievement in arts and culture could only be officially recognized through the Order of the Legion of Honor. Since the government established the Order of Arts and Letters in 1957, American recipients have included author Paul Auster, jazz artist and composer Ornette Coleman, architect Richard Meier, and actors Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman and Meryl Streep.

Glassman is moved by France’s efforts to acknowledge cultural contributions.

“To recognize achievements in the arts and letters with one of its highest honors says something about the country,” she said. “And it makes the recipient that much more attached to the country.”

Glassman learned that Louvre director Henri Loyrette nominated her for the award. The two have worked together for several years, including on a recent collaborative exhibition of American art at the Louvre — the first in the museum’s history. It’s just one of many initiatives, including fellowships and academic programs, that the Terra Foundation supports in France and around the world to promote American art. In March, the New York Times published an article about the foundation’s work.

For Glassman, it’s work that began even before her junior year. Having studied international relations helps in the path she ultimately followed. After Sweet Briar, she earned a master’s in art history from the University of New Mexico and an M.B.A. from the University of St. Thomas, Houston. Her accomplishments include establishing the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, of which she is president emerita.

Nonetheless, when the medal of officer of the Order of Arts and Letters is placed around her neck in a ceremony later this year, she will know it’s because she chose to study abroad, she says.

“I think this is really about Sweet Briar’s Junior Year in France program and how an international experience has grown into a lifelong passion.”

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