ONE French director calls her the ``ambassador of American culture to France.'' A former prot'eg'e calls her ``fairy godmother to the arts.'' America's own Robert Wilson -- whose epic theater works she helped establish in Europe before he was a hit at home -- calls her the best friend of American culture abroad.
Whatever the label, Parisian art patron Benedicte Pesle has emerged from a decade behind the scenes as the main inspiration, catalyst, and driving force behind establishing American artists in the concert halls, theater stages, and major festivals of Europe. Among her royal retinue: Merce Cunningham, Robert Wilson, Twyla Tharp, John Cage, Philip Glass, Martha Graham, and many others.
``She has created the bridge between America and Europe through which a whole generation of American artists have had great influence, not only on French culture, but European culture as well,'' says Alain Crombecque, director of France's famous yearly Festival Avignon. ``She has done so much for American art here,'' he says. ``Without her, perhaps it would not exist.''
A grandmotherly combination of friend, agent, impresario, producer, fund-raiser, and creative adviser, Ms. Pesle in 1976 founded Artservices International, a nonprofit ``foreign association'' to establish long-term collaborations with US artists. She had run a Parisian bookstore before spending time in the United States during the late 1950s and early '60s. ``Shocked, excited, and moved'' at the avant-garde visions of such artists as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham, Pesle says: ``When I came back to France I wanted everyone to know them.''
Unlike European governments, the US has no formal attach'e assigned to foreign capitals to oversee its own cultural interests abroad. Pesle picked up the torch, not on behalf of US interests per se, but in the interest of keeping her countrymen abreast of the best in contemporary art. ``To see and convince people to see is what I like,'' she says. ``Also to be in touch with what is new and real in our own time, so European culture does not just become a museum of classics. We must stay on top of the art which concerns our life, what we are.''
``She's brought about an understanding of the whole contemporary American art scene and is making a place for it throughout Europe,'' says Mr. Wilson. ``I think she knows as much or more about what's happening in this country than anyone. She's here [in the US] all the time, she's always interested in what's at the cutting edge. And she finds money to support it, when others couldn't.'' Gillian Levine, curator of Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, says one of the most remarkable things about Pesle is her willingness to take risks -- to champion artists before they are well known on either side of the Atlantic. ``She was instrumental in getting all of the exposure of Robert Wilson in Europe when he wasn't even getting it in the United States,'' Ms. Levine says.
For 11 years, Pesle worked out of her office as director of Paris's Iolas Gallery -- ``whipping up friends, producers, agents,'' she says. In 1976 she rented her own office on the Left Bank. ``You'll find it crawling with whatever group happens to be touring,'' says Levine, who once did free-lance work for Artservices.
In 1971, Pesle spawned a US cousin -- the New York-based Performing Artservices, and a foundation to support US artists coming to France called Modus Vivendi.
``She was not only willing to try to figure out how she and other French citizens could work to support an American organization,'' says Jean Rigg, former manager of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. ``She was able to do what our own board of directors never had the guts to do -- make a flat commitment.'' Ms. Rigg says meeting her commitment was not easy. ``Benedicte really had to scramble for those funds.''
Many of her collaborations -- Wilson and Philip Glass's ``Einstein on the Beach,'' experimental works of Twyla Tharp -- were the result of her having the ear of Michele Guy, former minister of culture under Val'ery Giscard d`Estaing and founding director of Festival d'Automne in Paris. Both she and Mr. Guy, through the good sense of their collaborations, earned the support of former French President Georges Pompidou.
In her element -- a cold red-tile floor, a glass desktop perched over four filing cabinets, ``the ambassador'' speaks softly, humbly. ``We're the catalyst that starts the reaction. We gather all the elements -- producers, agents, theaters, managements. We try to convince them that this artist is the one they should bring.''
She says much of her job is talking by phone to the various festival directors all over Europe. By being in touch with what directors are looking for, Ms. Pesle can enter the creative process with the American artists to help them devise what French audiences are looking for, what might be successful.
Over the years, the list of artists whose work Ms. Pesle has helped to ``realize'' has grown: theater artists Richard Foreman and Meredith Monk, dancers Viola Farber and Carol Armitage, choreographers Lucinda Childs and Douglas Dunn. Many of the productions she has helped create or co-produce have been taken to Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and Yugoslavia as well.
Perhaps the largest avenue Benedicte Pesle has opened for American performing artists in France is helping grant access to what are known as ``Maisons del Culture'' -- the government-run ``houses of culture'' in every large city and many smaller ones. Although they are not universities, they include performing-arts centers and rehearsal halls sometimes associated with schools, much in the same manner of small US university towns. Many had deteriorated out of disuse. ``Benedicte went to the government and said here is a solution to these underutilized facilities we are all so embarrassed about,'' says Rigg. She established residencies for such dance companies as Viola Farber, Lucinda Childs, Douglas Dunn, and visiting musicians, often tied to stints of teaching, or free, open rehearsals. ``This has opened the door to 10 years of cultural exchange that has benefited both countries.''
And most say that what she gets in return, monetarily, is far short of what she is worth. Pesle herself just speaks in vague terms of ``retainers that are fair.'' Ninety-five percent of Artservices' $90,000 yearly budget comes as gifts from artists. Of some she asks nothing but a percentage of future profits. She gets no help from the French government. ``They say we should get our money from America,'' says Pesle. ``And in America people say, `You are in France, get your money there.''