No one in Washington is happy about his move. French Ambassador François Delattre called Celette’s departure “wrenching.” The arts community, too, is reeling. The directors of major Washington institutions — the National Gallery of Art, the Washington National Opera, the American Film Institute — congregated last month at the French ambassador’s residence to celebrate (and commiserate) with him at one final fete.
In September, Celette will begin a professorial position with the Ministry of Education in France. It’s a fitting role for a man who claims to be an educator first, a diplomat second. He developed concert series, cinema nights, street festivals and stage productions, all with the aim of educating audiences and promoting French artists in the United States. That taste for teaching and sharing is perhaps why Celette thrived in this demanding role for decades in countries that included Japan and Cambodia.
“When I arrived here, I thought, ‘I won’t survive more than three months,’” Celette said. “The Kennedy Center. The National Gallery of Art. I was surrounded by these institutions. . . . Then, I began to understand how they work and I made friends. And the best way to make friends is to work together, to build something.”
Despite Celette’s love of Washington— a city the nature lover appreciates for both its cultural and physical landscapes — he is eager to return to his home town of Clermont-Ferrand to be closer to his parents. “I’ve been away from my family for 30 years. It’s important for me to see more of them,” Celette said in his office at the embassy, still partially decorated with abstract paintings and souvenirs of past travels.
Still, he’ll miss all this: The sweeping view of the embassy’s wooded grounds. The thousands of friends who visit La Maison. The Baroque Concert series. The bike paths. The convenience of Georgetown University’s library.
He’ll miss playing the violin for the cardinals in his back yard.
On his desk sits a piece of calligraphy, a sketch of a sword and a heart, which was given to him by a Japanese Zen master in 1989. He’s carried it with him to each successive post, a reminder of what his job entails.
“It means ‘endurance,’” Celette said. “Because enduring is polishing your heart like a sword,” Celette said. “It is with me all the time.”
A ‘consummate cultural diplomat’
Making friends is Celette’s forte. Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, calls him “the consummate cultural diplomat.” The Phillips Collection made him a lifetime honorary member. But his likability wasn’t a forgone conclusion in 2001, when he arrived only weeks before terrorists directed planes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Celette came to an America of metal detectors and anthrax scares, a country of red states, blue states and freedom-fry battle cries.