The American Center for Students and Artists was founded in 1931 on the Boulevard Raspail in Paris. In many ways, 1930s Paris was a hotbed for the culture of the times. The legacy of Dada was alive and well, Ernest Hemingway had just passed through, and the likes of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas still met in the city’s cafes. In the midst of this came the American Center, a space that would wind up showcasing not only the best of American cultural production, but would also be in the forefront of new expression with a distinctly international stamp.
Housed in a 1930s-era neoclassical building designed by Welles Bosworth, the Center was a frequent meeting place for Americans and French alike, hosting popular language, music, and theater courses. In the 1960s and 1970s, the American Center evolved into an incubator for avant-garde expression, hosting contemporary dance, music and visual arts, along with the European premieres of works by such artists as Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard, Robert Lowell, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham.
In the 1980s, in the face of the increasing commercialization of the Montparnasse neighborhood where it was situated, the Center embarked upon an ambitious rebirth in the Bercy neighborhood of Eastern Paris. In 1989, Frank Gehry was commissioned to design a new building for the Center, which opened in 1994.
Ultimately, however, the Center decided to carry out its activities in the form of a “foundation without walls,” as it were, in order to continue its longtime commitment to supporting avant-garde and experimental expression. The Gehry building became the home of the Cinémathèque française and the proceeds from the sale of the Center’s property were used to fund the grant-making programs of the American Center Foundation. In 2009, the Foundation changed its name to Foundation for Arts Initiatives (FfAI) as it expanded its programming and presence ever further beyond its historical Franco-American roots.