A little help from the French

Years ago, Jerry Lewis got one. More recently, luminaries such as novelist Paul Auster, jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, architect Richard Meier and actress Meryl Streep were awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, an honor bestowed upon a few dozen Americans for service to French culture. Add to this distinguished list Paul Holdengraber, who directs the Institute for Art and Cultures at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Clayton Campbell, co-director of the 18th Street Arts Complex; and Asuka Hisa, education director at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, all of whom have received the honor from the French Ministry for Culture and Communication.

"There is no specific reason" for inclusion, says French Consul Jean-Luc Sibiude, explaining that he looks "to recognize eminent writers and thinkers" with a link to France. "The link can be emotional or professional or cultural."

Holdengraber -- a kind of pan-European who lived in France for a year while attending the Sorbonne -- brings in visiting intellectuals, often pairing them with colleagues with whom they disagree, for evenings of public discourse at LACMA. So far, though, most of the touring intellectuals have been, uh, New Yorkers. He swears he's working with the consul to bring in a batch of French artists and journalists for 2003.

Campbell handles the programming, maintenance, curatorial work and fund-raising at the 18th Street Arts Complex, a Santa Monica institution that offers artist residencies, performances and exhibitions, and trains artists to teach in elementary schools. His link to France seems more solid. "I've been setting up residencies for years, and we've had French painters, filmmakers, installation artists, and performance artists," Campbell says. A show of his photography opens in Paris in June.

Hisa, who handles outreach and education at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, seems to have the most solid honest-to-Gaul connection to France. She went to a French school in Los Angeles, married a Frenchman, lived in France for most of the 1990s, and studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. "It was never my intention to become as French as I am," says the third-generation Japanese American. "In my moments of spiritual Buddhist thought, I realize I must've been French in another life."

Campbell's ceremony has already taken place; Hisa has not yet scheduled hers. Holdengraber plans to hold his at the home of the French consul in March.

"It's happening on French territory, so you can smoke there," he says. "The FBI can't get me there."

-- Scott Timberg

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