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Approaching Circulations through their Actors: For a Sociology of Go-Betweens. The Case of the American Friends of French Cultural Institutions

Penser les circulations par leurs acteurs : pour une sociologie des passeurs. Le cas des Amis Américains des institutions culturelles françaises
Pensar las circulaciones a través de sus actores: por una sociología de los intermediarios. El caso de los American Friends de las instituciones culturales francesas
Über die Zirkulation der Akteuren denken: für eine Soziologie der Vermittler. Das Beispiel der Amerikanischen Freunde der französicher Kulturinstitutionen
Anne Monier
Traduction de Jean-Yves Bart
Cet article est une traduction de :
Penser les circulations par leurs acteurs : pour une sociologie des passeurs. Le cas des Amis américains des institutions culturelles françaises [fr]


S’il existe un certain nombre de travaux sur la philanthropie transnationale, rares sont ceux qui se sont centrés sur les acteurs de ces circulations. C’est l’objet de cet article, qui étudie les acteurs qui permettent la circulation de la philanthropie – les passeurs –, à travers le cas des Amis Américains des institutions culturelles françaises. Fondé sur une enquête qualitative menée en France et aux États-Unis pendant trois ans, il s’intéresse aux passeurs dans une triple perspective. Il s’agit tout d’abord de comprendre les caractéristiques de ces acteurs, dans une perspective de sociologie des élites, ainsi que leur rôle, montrant les conditions de possibilité de l’émergence de ces passeurs. Ensuite, il s’agit de penser des passeurs multipositionnés, c’est-à-dire qui ne sont pas seulement entre deux mondes mais entre plusieurs mondes, ce qui a été rarement étudié dans les études sur les circulations. L’article montre notamment que ces acteurs multipositionnés effectuent un travail « d’intermédiation diplomatique ». Enfin, il s’agit de s’interroger sur le rôle des passeurs, plus largement, dans le développement de la philanthropie en France, inspirée en particulier des pratiques américaines, et s’inscrivant dans la lignée des transformations en cours dans le secteur public français.

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Figure 1

Figure 1

Source: Anne Monier.

1The notion of “transnational,” which refers to a burgeoning research field, has no single set definition, and has often been faulted for being “fuzzy” (MacDonald 2013), “too broad” (Risse-Kappen 1995) or “too vague” (Devin 2003). It is more than a mere synonym of “international” not only because it emerged, in the fields of history, political science, and sociology, as a challenge to the nation-state, attributing growing importance to non-state actors, but also because it offers an approach of its own. Indeed, understanding a transnational effect is analyzing a structured space of interconnections and relations between places that are separate and spatially, socially, and culturally autonomous, and deconstructing them (Saunier 2004). Under this approach, phenomena that extend across borders are considered in terms of circulations (Appadurai 2001; Saunier 2004; Wilfert 2013). Without negating nationalisation phenomena, circulations are considered as objects of study in their own right instead of self-evident forms of investigation: it is by studying what circulates, what connects, what creates systems that we can understand what fixes, frames and stabilises people, things and words (Wilfert 2013).

2A number of studies on transnational philanthropy have been published, especially by historians, in French (Saunier 2003; Guilhot 2004; Tournès 2010; Dakowska 2014) and in English (Gemelli & MacLeod 2003; Adam 2009; Beckert & Rosenbaum 2010). Many of them focus on the forms of circulation, partaking in the diffusionist paradigm (Tournès 2008): transnational philanthropy is conceived as a means to “disseminate,” “project,” “transfer”, or “import” practices, ideas, and values from a supposed centre to a supposed periphery. Some have used the term “philanthropic projections” (Hammack & Heydemann 2009) whereas others prefer “policy transfers” (Stone 2008).

3However, a few exceptions aside (including research by Ludovic Tournès), studies on transnational philanthropy have seldom examined the actors that make these circulations possible. This is what this article sets out to do, building on the existing actor-focused studies, particularly in political science, in which the “prism of circulation,” although it has been criticised (Vauchez 2013), has thrived and given rise to analyses of the circulation of public policies, forms of knowledge, models, and practices. Regardless of whether we call them “agents of exchange” (Saunier 2003), “relays” (Devin 2004), “international brokers” (Dezalay 2004) or “go-betweens” (Tournès 2010), as I do here, by analyzing these agents, we gain a better understanding of circulation processes.

4To do this here, we focus on a particular form of transnational philanthropy, performed by the American Friends of French cultural institutions (American Friends of the Paris Opera & Ballet, American Friends of the Louvre, etc.). American Friends are US organizations that qualify for some tax exemptions, both for the organization and its patrons, who may use them to make tax-exempt donations to a US-based organization working for a foreign cause. The American Friends of Versailles, for instance, allow US nationals to make donations to the Palace of Versailles and enjoy tax deductions in their own country. These groups are not only attached to French institutions. There are 2,000 American Friends groups connected to institutions in many countries (including Israel, Australia, Guinea, Thailand) in a variety of fields (cultural, medical, education, environmental, etc.). They hold fundraising events and activities for patrons (dinners, conferences, galas, tours, trips, etc.) in the two countries.

5The transnational philanthropy of the American Friends makes several worlds meet and creates a space made up of highly diverse actors. This configuration, which one might call a “social ecology” (Jeanpierre & Roueff 2014), evokes situations in which different social worlds come to “do things together” (Becker 1986). The concept allows us to analyse an environment in which actors form a system and take part in a common social game. Here I focus on go-betweens, which in line with recent research are defined as “individual actors who act as intermediaries in the process of the transfer of a standard or of practices, but also as producers or recipients of these standards of practices” (Jobard et al. 2020). However, one of the specificities of the American Friends go-betweens is that they are situated at the intersection between different worlds and countries. This multipositionality gives them a particular role, whose originality derives from the complexity of their position.

  • 1 Mobilisations philanthropiques transnationales : les “Amis Américains” des institutions culturelle (...)

6This analysis draws on a qualitative research conducted over the course of three years (2011-2014) in France (Paris) and in the United States (New York) for the purposes of my PhD thesis1 on transnational cultural philanthropy, focusing on the case of the American Friends. It uses a variety of materials: an ethnographic research, based on participant observations (sixteen months of volunteering with three American Friends organizations and observations of events in two additional organizations), interviews (nearly 200, with leaders of these American Friends groups and of the institutions they are attached to, but also with patrons, and many actors from the French and US words of culture, philanthropy and diplomacy), a systematic analysis of (mainstream and specialised) print and online media material pertaining to these American Friends and their patrons, an analysis of the documentation produced by these groups, and of the Rockefeller Foundation archives regarding donations by John D. Rockefeller and his sons to a variety of French cultural institutions (including the Palace of Versailles, the Palace of Fontainebleau and the Reims Cathedral).

  • 2 The New Oxford American dictionary defines an interface as “a point where two systems, subjects, o (...)

7This article synthesises a number of points made in my thesis regarding the idea of circulation, with a view towards developing a specific, actor-centred conception of the spaces and forms of the circulation of transnational philanthropy. The go-betweens of philanthropy are analysed through three lenses. First, efforts are made to evidence the characteristics (especially the social properties) of these actors and their roles. Documenting the specific backgrounds that allow them to exercise these roles, in the perspective of the sociology of elites, I highlight the conditions of possibility of the emergence of these go-betweens: it is because they possess a number of capitals that they are able to perform these roles. By showing this, I will move beyond a definition of go-betweens “through roles rather than through status” (Jobard et al. 2020). Then, these go-betweens must be conceived as multipositioned actors, meaning that they not only straddle two worlds but multiple worlds, which has seldom been examined in studies on circulations. I will show that they perform “diplomatic intermediation” work for the “interfaces”2 that are American Friends groups, meaning that they act as “intermediaries” (Nay & Smith 2002) not only between France and the United States, but also between the cultural world and the economic world. In doing so, I will draw jointly on the sociology of intermediaries and on the literature on cultural diplomacy to analyse this multipositioning. Lastly, and more broadly, I will consider the role of go-betweens in the development of philanthropy in France, inspired in part by American practices, and their contributions to and interactions with a wider range of ongoing transformations in the French public sector.

1. Interfaces as Multipositioned Spaces

8The role of go-betweens can only be performed in the specific space of the interfaces that are American Friends groups, which involve a wide variety of actors.

1. 1. The Context of Emergence and Development of the American Friends

  • 3 Between 1986 and 1988, the new French culture minister, François Léotard, made calls for patronage (...)
  • 4 All the resources generated and received by institutions without public subsidies (from ticket sal (...)

9The American Friends of French cultural institutions were born in a context during which general interest domains and the public sector experienced changes. They emerged in France in the 1980s at a time when philanthropy was on the rise (spurred especially by tax incentives3). They then expanded significantly in the 2000s and to an even greater extent in the 2010s, at a time when the French state made budget cuts and prompted public institutions to develop their own resources4, including by turning to philanthropy. A number of institutions, particularly those enjoying international exposure, turned abroad for fundraising, and in particular to the United States, where private charity endeavours are particularly encouraged.

10The development of the American Friends took place in the context of transformations of the “cultural state” and of the state more generally speaking that began in the 1980s, which “encountered other” evolutions (Bonelli & Pelletier 2010: 16). A number of scholars have argued that these transformations of the state have not signalled its “withdrawal,” its “powerlessness” or its “dismantling,” but rather a constant remaking (Bonelli & Pelletier 2010) or “restructuring” (King & Le Galès 2011). They do not conceive this phenomenon in terms of the “decline” of a “strong state,” but instead examine the reconfigurations of “the organization of relationships between state and ‘civil society’” (Lemercier 2005a: 169). This calls for adopting a relational approach (Gensburger 2011) because “the state only exists in relation to society” (Rosanvallon 1990: 15).

11The go-betweens studied here are actors that play a role in these transformations by making circulations possible, like the small policy entrepreneurs that contribute to transforming the state, in line with “moral entrepreneurs” (Becker 1985), “policy entrepreneurs” (Cobb & Elder 1972) and “state reform entrepreneurs” (Henry 1983). Focusing on these multipositioned actors is also a way of approaching these broader transformations by combining the macro and micro scales.

1. 2. Associations that straddle two countries

12The American Friends are a multipositioned, crossroads space primarily between two countries: France and the United States.

  • 5 Interview with the director of an American foundation that has collaborated with the AF, conducted (...)

13They are US organizations operating under US law that offer tax exemptions in the US, where their headquarters and offices are located (generally in New York), with one or several contact persons in France (generally in Paris), in most cases within the institution itself (a philanthropy manager, the manager of the French friends society, etc.) These two sets of roots lead to a double dependence: the American Friends depend in the US on their status and on the binding framework of patrons’ rights and of their independence, and in France on the cultural institution to which they are attached, with which they have a more or less formal relationship. As the director of a foundation that has funded American Friends points out, “The only common characteristic of Friends groups is just this structural challenge […], there is a tension that is built into the structure”5. However, this also allows for circulations, which make these associations genuine interfaces.

14Beyond their double institutional structure and dependence, these groups develop networks that extend on both sides of the Atlantic. Like many elite clubs (Chauvin & Cousin 2014 ; Pinçon & Pinçon-Charlot 1996), they cultivate international social capital. The American Friends draw on a threefold network. First, there is a network of patrons (mainly Americans but also a few from France) who live in the US but have many ties with France (a house, friends, visits). The second network is made up of people (mainly French, but also a few Americans) who live in France but have similar ties with the US. The union of these two networks creates a third transnational network that other actors join, thereby multiplying connections between the two countries’ elites regardless of their country of residence or nationality.

15American Friends groups both draw on this vast transnational network and reinforce it. First, they organise trips and activities on both sides of the Atlantic, which contributes to fostering exchanges. Having myself participated in the groups’ activities both in France and in the US, I observed that a number of individuals attended events in the two countries (“When was the last time I saw you? Oh yes, in Paris”). One of the patrons I had interviewed in New York laughed when she saw me at an event in Paris (“Hello Anne, I see you on all the continents!”). Then, they also encourage more personal encounters between the two countries’ elites. The board members who own a house in France often invite other patrons to come and spend time there. Likewise, one of the groups, which supports the preservation of French heritage, especially listed private estates, arranges meetings between owners who have received grants for restoration and their patrons. These practices anchor the transnational network in national networks. Patrons particularly appreciate the opportunity to gain a foothold into the elites of these countries, especially the Americans, for whom French elites are considered very difficult to access. Indeed, international social capital is more difficult to acquire than technical skills characterizing the cosmopolitan habitus, such as mastering languages or owning a house abroad: gaining access to the elites of another country is a whole other matter (Wagner 2003: 36).

16This transatlantic network is part of a broader transnational network, as for the most part the American Friends elites are highly mobile. I have observed that these elites, like “migratory birds” (Siméant 2012: 141), not only travel frequently but also visit the same places at the same times. I noticed this when I submitted interview requests, but also in my conversations with them. Lastly, the presence of multiple addresses on listings of patrons’ contacts is also an indication of their mobility. Obviously, they will sometimes travel on their own, but some circulations appear to be more collective, even when they are done separately. For these elites, there are seasons for every destination. These may include, for instance, Aspen or Gstaad (often in February for a skiing trip), Paris (in June or during the summer for a number of interviewees) Italy (Rome, Florence, Venice, also often during the summer), as well as summer resorts (like Palm Beach), and islands (St. Barthelemy, the Caribbean, etc.)

17This transnational network—to which American Friends groups, which are a crossroads among others, contribute—is a reflection of the internationalisation of large cultural institutions, which organise transnational activities and exceptional trips across the world. The transnational character of the space of the American Friends is part of the cosmopolitanism of relationships and the multi-territoriality that define high society (Wagner 2003: 38). However, the transnational American Friends network is primarily a transatlantic network, following in the footsteps of the major twentieth-century transatlantic networks: it remains rooted in national networks and shaped by the social habitus of their respective social elites.

1. 3. Associations that Straddle Different Worlds

18The American Friends groups also stand at the crossroads between different (economic, cultural, diplomatic, political, etc.) worlds. This is first indicated by the diversity of the actors I met during my research.

19While I initially focused on interviews with members of the two key actors of the philanthropic relationship—donors and recipients, the latter category including directors of American Friends groups and executives of French cultural institutions (presidents, curators, philanthropy managers, etc.)—, I also met numerous other actors whom I have called “peripheral” actors for the purposes of distinguishing them from the core subjects of my analysis. The goal was to interview people who belong to the different worlds that crisscross within or around the intermediation organizations that are the American Friends: the cultural, economic, philanthropic, diplomatic world, etc. This set of actors can be divided into three main groups.

  • 6 The RMN-GP (Réunion des musées nationaux-Grand Palais) is a public cultural institution (EPIC), th (...)

20The first group is made up by the other groups that are similar or close to the American Friends: the American Friends of other nationalities (like the American Friends of the British Museum) or the French American Friends groups in areas other than culture (like the Friends of the American Hospital in Paris). By meeting directors of these groups, I was able to pinpoint a number of characteristics shared by the American Friends, but also and most importantly to understand the specificity of the case of France and of the cultural world in particular. The second group is made up of partners of the American Friends groups, which include American and French cultural institutions (Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum, Frick Collection, the Réunion des Musées nationaux-Grand Palais,6 etc.), Franco-American organizations, (Instituts français, Alliances Françaises, Maisons françaises, the French-American Foundation, etc.), auction houses (Sotheby’s, Christie’s), French and American diplomatic corps (ambassadors, consuls, cultural advisers, etc.). The third group is made up of people who are more or less closely acquainted with American Friends groups and generally have something to say about them, or have attended one of their events. They are university professors with ties to the Franco-American community, patrons of other American Friends or other institutions, gallery managers, or New York-based French expats.

21Another element demonstrates the interfacial character of American Friends groups, namely the multitude of state actors with which they are connected. These can be classified in four main categories, which match the different domains that concern these groups. In the first, which is the main category, we find cultural actors, that American Friends executives mostly meet in France, and sometimes in the US when they travel (presidents of institutions, curators, art directors, etc.). The second category comprises diplomats (ambassador, consul, cultural adviser, etc.), who are in close contact with them in the US and sometimes act as relays in their relationships with France. The third category is made up of political actors (mayors, ministers, etc.), who are not civil servants but are nevertheless state agents. The fourth category includes other state agents (civil servants at the Ministry of the Economy, administrators, etc.). This proximity between state and philanthropic actors operates mostly at the highest levels, even if civil servants from other categories (such as museum employees, who are mid-level cultural actors) also have connections with patrons: it is mostly an elite-to-elite relationship.

22While this categorization gives a sense of the different actors who are connected with the American Friends, it should be refined and nuanced. Indeed, there are hybrid, multipositioned actors who both find themselves in a complex and sometimes delicate position and act as go-betweens between worlds. Among them, we find two subgroups. The first are state actors operating at the intersection of two areas, like cultural advisers, who work between the diplomatic and cultural worlds, or agents at the Ministry of Culture (especially in the minister’s office), who work between the political and cultural worlds. The second group are state actors in charge of patronage within institutions, including the director of the patronage mission at the Ministry of Culture and the agents in charge of development and patronage in cultural institutions. This complexity is illustrated by the figure below:

Figure 2

Figure 2

State actors with connections to the American Friends.

Source: Anne Monier.

23The figure shows the entanglement in the cultural field between state and philanthropic actors, but also between different domains, owing to the transnational, cross-sector network formed by these actors. Philanthropy appears here as a complex ecosystem, a crossroads world, with connections to highly diverse milieus.

2. The Sociology of the American Friends’ Go-Betweens

24Within these interfaces, go-betweens, who stand at the borders of different networks, have specific social characteristics, such as their membership in the elites, but most importantly they have high levels of social capital, in terms of volume, strength and scope alike.

2. 1. Elites?

25Like all the actors involved in American Friends philanthropy, the go-betweens of this social ecology belong to the elites. They possess four main types of capital, to varying degrees depending on the types of elites: academic, economic, cultural, and international.

26While the American Friends patrons belong to a somewhat elderly (85% of the interviewees were aged 65), WASP and female population (62% of women), they are especially characterised by their high levels of economic capital. They have sizeable fortunes: among the interviewees, four were listed in the Forbes ranking of the 400 wealthiest Americans, with assets estimated at between 1,3 and 11,2 billion dollars. Regarding the other patrons we interviewed, for which precise figures were unavailable, the analysis of their lifestyles (real estate, salaries, donations, etc.) gives an idea of their economic capital, and suggest that most are multimillionaires, with donations often exceeding 100,000 dollars yearly. They also have high levels of academic capital (53% of interviewees with an Ivy League education) and of international capital, travelling frequently between France and in the US and more largely in other countries.

27Among the other go-betweens who are not American Friends patrons, executives of cultural institutions and of American Friends groups often stand out in terms of cultural capital. In the latter, I have observed high levels of academic capital (they all have postgraduate degrees, often from prestigious schools, such as New York University, Columbia University, Kellogg Business School), of cultural capital (having often studied art, they tend to be keen connoisseurs) and of international capital (they have studied abroad, often have a perfect command of French, etc.). However, they generally have less economic capital than the patrons, with some exceptions. Lastly, other go-betweens—diplomats, economic actors, etc.—also exhibit these four main types of capital in varying proportions. But social capital makes the greatest difference in their ability to act as go-betweens.

2. 2. A Sizeable, Strong Social Capital

28The go-betweens are first and foremost individuals with particularly high volumes of social capital.

29It is easy to identify them in interviews: their names are on everyone’s lips, be they patrons, group leaders or other individuals with connections to this world. It is said that they are known to all and know everyone (“She knows a lot of people,” “He knows everybody,” “She’s everywhere”). I was able to observe several of these go-betweens in action, as in the case of two members of a board, women with a large network and whose impressive social skills struck me: they were able to move seamlessly from group to group and from topic to topic with striking dexterity and infectious joy. Their charisma and easy-going demeanour filled me with anticipation ahead of my interview with them. Yet, the interview turned out to be a disappointment: they spoke more monotonously and sometimes struggled to answer questions, which suggests that their breezy interactions may have been theatricalised, and that such performances were reserved to larger audiences.

  • 7 Observation conducted on 15th May 2012.

30The go-betweens are also people who maintain close personal relationships, “strong ties” that open doors for them (“she has this role as an ambassador and an opener of doors in the art world”). They are especially skilled at opening doors that are very much closed, as I have witnessed on several occasions. For instance, in my efforts to meet Margaret, a very wealthy and influential patron and member of the board of one of the groups under study, I tried everything—writing to her, going through the group’s director, asking someone else—to no avail. The executive director attempted to get me to meet her, but this did not work. When I mentioned my eagerness to meet Margaret to the executive director of another, non-French American Friends group, she grabbed her phone and called her in front of me, and as she hung up she told me the three of us were going to lunch at the Colony Club the following week. Another example involves a diplomat named Henri, who I had wanted to meet for a long time, and who many people had tried to arrange for me to meet. Having given up hope of seeing him, I secured an interview with one of these go-betweens who told me she knew Henri well, sent him an email that she read aloud to me; two hours later, I received an email from Henri who had set up an appointment. This ability to mobilise prestigious contacts is particularly valued and those who are skilled at it are highly praised (“It would be a huge success for G.S. to make Daniel Boulud come”7).

2. 3. A Social Capital with a Wide Spectrum

31In addition to these two characteristics (high volume and strength of social capital), go-betweens are most importantly boundary crossers, in a geographic, cultural and symbolic sense. They rely on “the different networks […] between which they strive to establish contacts when they do not already exist or to strengthen them when they do exist” (Tournès 2010). This is a central point because it allows to make distinctions between go-betweens on the basis of the spectrum of their social capital.

32The spectrum is the ability to mobilise contacts beyond one’s milieu. The wider the spectrum, the more an individual knows very diverse individuals from different worlds. Precisely, as we have seen, the network of American Friends stands at the intersection of a variety of worlds—cultural, diplomatic, philanthropic, economic, political (in the two countries)—which favours, as in the case of the American foundations described by Ludovic Tournès “systematic contact between diverse worlds forming as many networks that they work to put in touch” (Tournès 2010). These transversal networks confer a social capital with a wide spectrum and are essential assets in that they allow groups to organise particularly unique and exclusive events and activities in the two countries. Indeed, the exceptional activities offered by American Friends groups can only be arranged by drawing on a network that is active beyond the confines of the philanthropic world. An executive told me that having connections in the art world was an essential condition for his work: “You need to first have the contacts in order to do a good job. And I think maybe the previous president, she was extraordinary in figuring out how to set up an organization like this […] but she wasn't necessarily so connected in the art world…”

33The political world is also in high demand, especially in France, even though embassies are also mobilised in the US. Proximity with economic circles gives opportunities to call on large French corporations in the US or to invite former IMF chair and current ECB director Christine Lagarde to make an appearance at a gala, because one of the board members knows her and has direct access to her (she was ultimately unable to make it). American Friends also have connections to the world of luxury, through which they have developed a collaboration with Bernardaud and arranged for a private visit of the Maison Chanel, thanks to a French patron who had worked there for her entire career. The elite of French cuisine is also part of this transversal network: the chef of Michelin-starred restaurant George V cooked for a gala because one of the patrons knew him personally. The list of circles with connections to American Friends groups is a long one, and each contact is an “opportunity” to organise something; the choice of activities, and their form, changes along with new encounters and relationships.

34The transversality of networks, meaning the spectrum of social capital, is accordingly a crucial factor illuminating transnational philanthropy and its circulations. This spectrum obviously covers specific (artistic, diplomatic, economic) worlds and their elite fractions, but beyond the context of philanthropy, having contacts in more diverse social worlds also grants these elites a number of advantages—they may have the best driver, the best housekeeper or the best hairdresser. Thus organizations are mindful of the spectrum of social capital. The director of a US cultural institution told me that this factor is considered in the creation of a board, which requires a mix of different social groups:

So I guess you know how to create a board, you have to have a bit of everything. You need an artist, because it’s arts and it attracts people. You need legal people, because as you might know, philanthropy is a lot about law. You need financial people, you need social people, who don’t have so much money but are very well connected, and you need people who are into local politics. So creating a board is finding the right mix. It also has to be people politically well together. What we say is: you have to keep politics out of the Boardroom.

35The recipe is simple: there must be one or two individuals from each world to be able to use different talents, but also to be able to attract people from all horizons and make sure that the group grows beyond the confines of the worlds initially represented while maintaining a sense of harmony between members.

36This ability to have a wide spectrum impacts the work of the go-betweens and makes differences between them. The main differentiation spectrum-wise is between the bilateral (those who are go-betweens between two worlds) and the multilateral ones (between more than two worlds). There are in turn two subtypes of bilateral go-betweens. First, there are those who bridge two worlds in the same country, like the person discussed below, who is familiar both with US financial and art circles (for the latter, both cultural institutions and auction houses):

  • 8 Interview with an American Friends group executive, 7th May 2014, Paris.

Tracy, on the other hand, is close to the art world, she sits on the boards of several institutions, and she took part in the creation of PS1 which is a branch of MoMA, so she has connections and she knows contemporary artists very well. I think she also worked for Sotheby’s, I’m not sure though […] so there’s very strong ties with the art market there […] So that’s also a specificity. Tracy works […] for Bloomberg on the side, and so she’s close to the financial world as well. She handles PR, I think, and organises events, so she knows the establishment and this world of relations very well […]. She has a genuine knowledge of the financial market and the art market.8

  • 9 The spectrum of social capital is assessed based on the diversity of people with whom one is conne (...)

37Then, there are the bilateral go-betweens who connect the same worlds in two countries, as in the case of an American curator who is familiar with the French cultural world. Bilateral go-betweens between two countries face a more complex task than those who connect two worlds in the same country because they often have to possess international resources, such as the ability to speak a language or knowledge of the other country. One of the go-betweens who connects different worlds cannot, for instance, do this between the two countries: as she does not speak French, she found herself unable to explain what the group is about to a French couple and had to rely on me to serve as a translator. These bilateral go-betweens (between two worlds or two countries) are somewhat specialised individuals, often internationally savvy but rooted in the US; their spectrum9 is fairly wide but still limited.

38For their part, the multilateral go-betweens are individuals with a very wide spectrum, who are able to connect different worlds and different countries, acting as social “crossroads” that perform what I have called a work of “diplomatic intermediation.” A difference in social origin is observed among these go-betweens. On the one hand, there are multilateral go-betweens who are somewhat recent elites, self-made men and women, like Catherine, who has created a real estate empire, travels constantly, is interested in many things, but remains confined to certain worlds. On the other, there are multilateral go-betweens who come from old grand bourgeois families or the aristocracy, who are highly internationalised, and particularly open people, both thematically and geographically. They feel at ease in many worlds, like Louise, who comes from a great European family of artists, and who plays a key role as a go-between, earning admiration from the interviewees (“She’s an amazingly social creature, social animal […] she knows everybody on the planet, there’s nobody on the planet she cannot reach or know, she has… She’s the only person I know that has 5,000 best friends… I mean I have friends but not like her”). This latter group of multilateral brokers, who stand at the top of the hierarchy of the go-betweens, exhibit a sense of ease and tolerance that is reminiscent to that acquired in the elite institutions discussed by Shamus Khan (Khan 2011). It is a kind of social and international openness that one might call “omnivorousness,” applying to social capital a term usually employed in reference to cultural capital: these individuals are at ease in several worlds in the same way that cultural omnivores readily listen to different genres of music.

2. 4. The Dynamics of Activation of Go-Betweens: Active/Passive Go-Betweens

39However, these three characteristics—the strength, volume and spectrum of social capital—are insufficient to define a go-between: they also need to be eager to activate these resources and to enjoy putting these relationships to work. There are active and passive go-betweens.

40The active go-betweens are “incredibly dynamic” and seek to make connections. When I interviewed them, some of them told me they enjoyed making social connections, introducing people to each other, as in the case of the chairwoman of one of the groups (“I like helping people, putting them in touch, having this person meet that person, I like to create a thread between people, to weave those invisible links between people”). They put all their energy into this.

41The passive go-betweens are those who have the ability to act as go-betweens but are not doing this work. Somewhere between the two models, there are individuals who only act as go-betweens in certain worlds or on certain occasions. For instance, one of the members of a group’s board, who works for a corporation in Washington, DC, acts as a broker between the political world (elected officials) and the economic world (corporations). Yet, within the American Friends group, her role is passive, and she does not put energy into connecting people—perhaps also for lack of time. The role of go-between can be activated and deactivated depending on the circumstances.

3. The Complex Role of Multipositioned Go-Betweens

42Through their role as go-betweens, all of these actors contribute to the mobilization of elite patrons, which is in that sense a genuinely “joint construction” (Becker 1982). Their role consists in assisting in the creation and development of the groups; making connections between actors; circulating practices, information, discourses, etc.; translating; negotiating—between two main countries and worlds—, through a process I call “diplomatic intermediation.”

3. 1. A Central Role in the Creation of American Friends Groups

43Go-betweens play a central role in the creation of American Friends groups, an often jointly constructed process.

  • 10 Here I use “bicultural” in the broader sense of the term, to refer to people who (regardless of th (...)

44This joint construction, from the initial impetus to the implementation phase, involves the executives of the French institutions and the leading US representatives (executive director, lawyer, chairperson), requiring constant communication between France and the US. The role of the go-betweens is central throughout the process: being often bicultural individuals10, they know how both the French cultural world and the US non-profit sector work. These highly connected go-betweens “make connections,” especially at the beginning of the process, introduce people and build relationships and bridges (“She is in charge of introducing high-profile people to the [name of the institution]. She took [Mr Collins] on a tour. I think she could be a very good resource for you”).

  • 11 Interview with the chairwoman of an American Friends group, Paris, 24th March 2011.

45Aline has played this role of ambassador, initiator and “connector” for the Opéra de Paris. A French national, she lived in the US for eighteen years and “learned on the job, by volunteering for the New York City Ballet and the Metropolitan Museum in New York11”. When she returned to France, she saw that “this kind of patronage did not exist yet” and was approached by the President of the Opéra de Paris to found the French association of the Friends of the Opera. This was the time when Rudolf Nureyev, then director of the Ballet, was planning a US tour. They decided to found an American Friends group “at the same time” to raise funds for the tour in the US. For this purpose, she went to the US to “meet the people who mattered over there” and discuss the project of the association and try to set it up. Extensive back-and-forth between the countries followed. The creation of American Friends groups is a mobilization in concentric circles: the initiative comes from the institution, the central player in the process, and the institutions’ executives then mobilise US actors who become involved in the project and in turn mobilise others.

3. 2. Bridging the Distance

46Once the association has been founded, the role of the go-betweens in charge in American Friends groups is to bridge the physical distance to the institution.

47The first task of these individuals is to “circulate” information, objects, people, etc. between patrons and recipients: they perform an important work of intermediation. This may involve welcoming American patrons when they come to France, pass on information about the institution in the US (the programme, one-off events, restorations of artworks or monuments, artists’ residencies, nominations, etc.). Theirs is a particularly ambiguous role as they represent the interests of both the cultural institution for which they work and of the patrons of the American Friends group.

48This requires maintaining close ties with the institution, on a frequent and even daily basis for some associations (“we work in collaboration,” “we work together,” “we divide it up, but we work together a lot”). Ties are even closer when members of the association used to work for the institution (“we work very closely with them… and it might have something to do with the fact that I was at the Tate before”). Even when this is not the case, contacts are frequent: an executive in a prominent Paris museum told me she took part “in one official conference call every two weeks, and then daily exchanges” to discuss projects and “put all the information on the table,” so that everyone is kept in the loop and has “the same information.” Despite variations depending on the period (communication is more intense when an event or a board meeting is looming), there is always a “tight relationship” and “a lot of communication” between the two entities, which account for much of the association’s work (“A lot of our time is spent to work with our colleagues in London, and not only on admin work… We exchange, we talk, we communicate”). These intense exchanges aim to inform the American Friends about what is going on in the institution. Being the face of the institution in the US, they must keep track of what is going on there, both on a logistical and administrative level (new opening hours, appointments, etc.) and on an artistic level (the programme, the presence of an artist, a new exhibit, etc.)

49Bridging the distance also involves a process of “translation” of information, a translation that must be understood both in the linguistic and cultural sense, as an executive puts it here:

Part of our job is to keep the AF in the loop about what is going on at the Museum. We have a lot of meetings, we call each other very often. There are so many projects at the Museum and they’re physically remote, so we have to keep them constantly in the loop. We also give them the information produced by curators. So we have diffusion and communication work to do. The material comes from the Museum, and then the AF Americanise it. So they handle all the requests.

50Far from operating simply as a receptacle for information, the association acts as a “filter” between the institution and the American patrons. The members of the association take the “material” provided by the Museum and “Americanise” it. With their knowledge of the US and personal connections to American patrons, they transform information to make it understandable and palatable to Americans, emphasizing certain elements. This is the role played by Tracy, the executive director of one of the American Friends groups (“The proposals are sent by the Museum to the Friends, and then they are adapted by Tracy, because she knows people, situations, she knows how to make proposals”). The goal is to bring awareness of a culture with which her interlocutors are sometimes not as familiar, and to make them understand an institution that is based in a place where the history, the traditions and the ways of doing things are very different. This “cultural translation” work is only made possible by the in-depth knowledge of the two countries and the two languages by the institution’s leaders—especially the executive directors. The use of languages is a particularly telling example of the way in which these executives put their “international capital” to work (Wagner 2007).

3. 3. Adapting Practices

51The go-betweens who contribute to the mobilization of the American Friends also adapt practices, particularly when it comes to the recognition of patrons. Ethics charters can play an important role in this. The Louvre Museum’s mentions the question of naming and its limitations in its section on “the Granting of Special Benefits and the Naming of Rooms”:

The names of certain rooms at the Louvre have been consecrated by time, which means that they were determined over fifty years ago. Therefore, the Musée du Louvre shall refrain from renaming areas of the museum with consecrated names in order to give the space the name of an individual donor in acknowledgement of a particularly generous donation. If a space does not have a historical name, the President-Director may make a proposal to the museum’s Board of Directors to name it after a donor in acknowledgement of a particularly generous donation. A room will be named for a limited period of time, depending on the amount and the nature of the donation, in accordance with the policy on granting special benefits approved by the Board of Directors on 10th October 2003.12

52Naming was adopted, then, but with adjustments. Two of them are arguably particularly interesting. The first concerns the mention of the donation amount on the plaque. Whereas in the US, recognition on plaques depends on the donation amount (i.e., depending on whether patrons have given 1,000/10,000/100,000 dollars), most French cultural institutions refuse to adopt such a categorization and will rather put up a common plaque, where the differentiation is not as rationalised and calculating, emphasizing the equality of treatment of patrons and giving a sense of “overall recognition”:

  • 13 Group interview with the president and curators of a cultural institution, Paris, 16th May 2014.

We constantly have American Friends going: “Tell us how many rooms you have.” The thing is, they translate [donations] into plaques […]. We won’t answer these questions, because we don’t want to become a plaque museum, and we’d rather have them recognised in Museum’s entrance hall, in a gratifying spot… Otherwise, you’ve paid for the lift, you have your name on the lift, you’ve paid for the great room, well… So visually it’s very simple. We want to try and convey a sense of overall recognition, and if we use financial metrics, it becomes cruel and unfair, because it’s not the same economic scale […] so it’s not simple.13

53Cultural executives must contend with requests by American patrons that are at odds with their values: they try to offer alternatives. The second form of adjustment regarding naming pertains to exposure. As US patrons have rationales for exposure that differ from those of French institutions, practices are adapted:

  • 14 Interview with the executives of a cultural institution, Paris, 18th February 2013.

They are very mindful of exposure and recognition […]. Naming is really important to [the Americans]. But that’s where it gets a bit complicated, because it’s hard to name rooms, especially considering that we have a strict charter. That’s when the weight of cultural differences makes itself felt. They want big plaques, and their names in huge gold letters, whereas we only offer a small grey corner plaque, so we sense their disappointment when they respond. Exposure isn’t staged in the same way here. And we’re not allowed to name any place anything. So they’re always asking for mock-ups, and we send them the mock-ups so that they see what it will look like.14

  • 15 Ibid.

54This is an adjustment variable that is used particularly frequently. Adaptations are made through consensus, with an effort to make sure the patron is happy: when it comes to Americans, the importance of acting “diplomatically” is central (“The naming […] thing […] could have been very shocking […], we’re trying to frame things […] to pay tribute to the donors as is proper, but at the same time to monitor how this is done, by complying with rules that are […] more precise, and which allow everyone involved to get what they want”15). They sometimes result in new forms of naming, hybrids between US philanthropy practices and those of the French cultural world, creating a “shared world.”

3. 4. Explaining, Negotiating, Translating

55The go-betweens also crucially act as intercultural translators for the American patrons. The cultural executives in institutions in particular strive to ensure that their patrons understand the values and practices of the French cultural world, to foster more fluid relationships. The objective of this intercultural translation effort is to explain to American patrons how the French cultural world operates, what its codes and practices are:

  • 16 Group interview with the president and curators of a cultural institution, Paris, 16th May 2014.

I wouldn’t use the term ‘negotiator’ […], because actually we have nothing to negotiate, it’s just explaining. […] There’s two of us doing this work: [the two curators and the president] […]. But everyone needs to chip in, […] it’s an absolutely crucial role. Someone has to be aware that your interlocutor doesn’t understand what you’re talking about. For instance, at the Directorate for French Museums, we hold meetings, we invite [the Americans]. We speak the bureaucracy’s language (smiles), we use terms they’re not familiar with, we tell them ‘you understand, because of budget annuality’ […] A civil servant who talks like that doesn’t get that on the opposite end of the table… This is why our role is so important.16

56Curators spend a lot of time doing this translation and explanation work, tailoring it to their audience and attempting to find the best way to make the Americans understand how the French system works, using practical examples:

  • 17 Ibid.

Just for fun, I timed my conversations with each of the [two board members] […]. Turns out I took 25 minutes with the French [member] and 45 minutes with the American one. […] This difference is deep down due to the fact that with the French woman, I’ll tell her ‘budget annuality’, she doesn’t really know what that is, but I’ll explain and she gets it quickly, whereas with the American woman, I have to go: “it’s the state budget, there’s a vote…”, that’s actually what I’m doing! “There’s a vote in Parliament, we’re not allowed to spend the money” […] That’s what it is, I have to explain to her how the institution works, the Third Republic, all that…17

57To achieve its aims, according to a curator, this work must draw on trust-based interpersonal relationships, allowing to defuse conflicts and to be open to the other person’s point of view:

  • 18 Ibid.

Even we get confused. What’s for sure, though, is that the role of the curator as a mediator with Friends societies, especially American Friends, is super important, considering that cultural distance […]. The whole point of the mediation is also to avoid finding ourselves in a confrontative, tense situation, precisely in the case of a forced or external acquisition. That is where I think it all plays out, because it also touches on an emotional component, since we’re dealing with interpersonal relationships, it’s about bringing the other to understand our point of view, and not only the bureaucratic and cultural point of view, but also our professional point of view which is that we’re not just going to include any artwork in the French public collections. […] It’s not easy, but I’ve come to understand there is something at stake here, and it also becomes a pleasure to be able to understand both sides, because if you’re too single-minded, you end up banging your hand against the walls and telling yourself: “those damn Americans just don’t get it!”18

  • 19 Interview with the executive director of a non-French American Friends group, New York, 13th March (...)

58This translation work is also performed in the associations of other countries, as the executive of an American Friends group in Italy told me (“Currently, there’s a controversy […] around the Piazza San Marco’s billboard […]. In the United States, it’s different, we’re used to signs, logos, etc. But in Italy, it’s a problem […], it’s a different sensibility […], we try to explain that we don’t own the [monuments] […]. There are different expectations. We explain to people that in Italy, things are different, there are rules and we’re not the ones making them”19). This work requires tirelessly explaining, clarifying things, “building bridges” between two worlds.

3. 5. The Role of the Multipositioned Go-Between: Diplomatic Intermediation

  • 20 Interview with the executive director of a cultural institution, a former diplomat, Paris, 24th Ju (...)

59These constant translations and negotiations between the two worlds, which go back and forth, and are at play in interpersonal interactions, constitute the core of the “diplomatic” work performed by the American Friends (“You have to put yourself in the institutions’ shoes… It’s a genuinely diplomatic work, handling all this, in France and in the United States”20). In addition to this diplomatic work, there is a work of intermediation between two worlds governed by “value systems that have for a long time been at odds, such as those of art and commerce” (Jeanpierre & Roueff 2014). This work, performed by the American Friends and their relays, combines, on the one hand, intermediation between the art world and the economic world, and diplomacy between France and the US, going back and forth between the two represented parties—what I have called “diplomatic intermediation.”

60This diplomatic intermediation work is not only done by executives of American Friends groups and of cultural institutions. A great many actors belong to what I have called the “nebula of philanthropy” in reference to Christian Topalov’s work (Topalov 1999), and which includes all the (central and peripheral) actors who gravitate around the American Friends. Within this nebula, ideas, information and representations circulate (on the role of philanthropy, its impact on society, its contribution to the general interest, etc.), through the interpersonal relationships developed by the actors. It is through this circulation that the cause of philanthropy is “transnationalised,” in that a number of American actors come to assist their French counterparts in defending and expanding philanthropy in France. This involves the circulation of ideas, representations and information, but also a more focused effort with French political elites. In particular, American patrons support the adoption of laws and structures that encourage philanthropy. These include the 2008 French law on the “fonds de dotation,” a structure directly inspired by the American endowment funds, which was backed by several American Friends patrons. A more long-term, substantive work effort also targets French political elites.


61The analysis of American Friends groups yields insights into transnational philanthropy and the circulations it encourages. Focusing on the actors of these circulations, this article offers an analysis of these “go-betweens,” their characteristics and their roles within these multipositioned associations acting as interfaces, showing, in particular, the conditions of possibility required for actors to become go-betweens. Combining the examination of these actors’ roles and of their social characteristics, the sociology of elites approach also offers a contextualization of these go-betweens’ roles. This sheds light on their complexity, opening the black box of the concept of “intermediation” and investigating its different facets: these go-betweens, indeed, do an important work of circulation, negotiation, explication, adaptation and translation between two countries (France and the United States) and several worlds (beginning with the cultural and the economic world): this is what I have called “diplomatic intermediation.” Lastly, the work of these go-betweens, which supports the development of US philanthropy in France, has effects and contributes to a broader movement of increased openness to private actors in cultural institutions, which is in turn part of larger transformations of the state and of the relationships between public and private sector.

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1 Mobilisations philanthropiques transnationales : les “Amis Américains” des institutions culturelles françaises. PhD thesis in political sociology. Paris, École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2016. Cf. Monier 2019.

2 The New Oxford American dictionary defines an interface as “a point where two systems, subjects, organizations, etc. meet and interact”; the term relates to the concepts of “hub” (Tournès 2008), “node” (Sassen 2007), “hybrid space”, or “interstitial position” (Georgakakis & Vauchez 2015).

3 Between 1986 and 1988, the new French culture minister, François Léotard, made calls for patronage a key feature of his policy. For the first time ever, the act of 23rd July 1987 gave a legal recognition to the term “patronage.” Maximum tax deduction rates were raised again and the scope of the organizations that could receive such donations was extended. A higher council for cultural patronage (Conseil supérieur du mécénat culturel) was created in 1987.

4 All the resources generated and received by institutions without public subsidies (from ticket sales, shops, patrons’ donations, etc.) are considered as their own resources.

5 Interview with the director of an American foundation that has collaborated with the AF, conducted over the phone on 20th May 2013.

6 The RMN-GP (Réunion des musées nationaux-Grand Palais) is a public cultural institution (EPIC), that brings together the Grand Palais museum and national SCN (service museums with a national competence) museums, such as the Cluny Museum or the Domaine de Compiègne.

7 Observation conducted on 15th May 2012.

8 Interview with an American Friends group executive, 7th May 2014, Paris.

9 The spectrum of social capital is assessed based on the diversity of people with whom one is connected (Monier 2018).

10 Here I use “bicultural” in the broader sense of the term, to refer to people who (regardless of their nationality) are familiar with the cultures of the two countries, having resided in both for some time.

11 Interview with the chairwoman of an American Friends group, Paris, 24th March 2011.

12 Louvre Museum website, last accessed on 17th August 2022.

13 Group interview with the president and curators of a cultural institution, Paris, 16th May 2014.

14 Interview with the executives of a cultural institution, Paris, 18th February 2013.

15 Ibid.

16 Group interview with the president and curators of a cultural institution, Paris, 16th May 2014.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 Interview with the executive director of a non-French American Friends group, New York, 13th March 2013.

20 Interview with the executive director of a cultural institution, a former diplomat, Paris, 24th July 2013.

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Titre Figure 1
Crédits Source: Anne Monier.
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Titre Figure 2
Légende State actors with connections to the American Friends.
Crédits Source: Anne Monier.
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Anne Monier, « Approaching Circulations through their Actors: For a Sociology of Go-Betweens. The Case of the American Friends of French Cultural Institutions »Biens Symboliques / Symbolic Goods [En ligne], 13 | 2023, mis en ligne le 18 décembre 2023, consulté le 23 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Anne Monier

Docteure en sociologie politique, chercheuse à la Chaire Philantrophie de l’Essec

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