The Foundation for Arts Initiatives has been an advocate of contemporary arts and culture for more than 60 years. Originally created as a community center in Paris for young American expatriates, it became in time an influential cultural space, eventually evolving into a grant-making foundation that supports institutions and individuals it believes are making vital contributions to contemporary culture.
Founded in 1931 in Paris as the American Center for Students and Artists, with a library and language courses, it evolved after World War II into a full-fledged cultural center. Known as the American Center in Paris, its building on Boulevard Raspail hosted exhibitions, performances, concerts, film screenings, lectures and residencies from the 1950s through the 1970s. From Yves Klein organizing judo classes after his return from Japan in the ‘50s and Carolee Schneemann staging her first happening in Europe in 1964, to programs like Fluxus festivals and Living Theater residencies, the American Center followed cutting-edge practices.
By the 1980s the American Center’s programs had outgrown its building on Boulevard Raspail. The Board at the time commissioned Frank Gehry to design a much larger structure in the Bercy neighborhood. The new American Center opened in 1994 with a program of exhibitions, performances, installations, film and video series, and conferences organized by a distinguished group of curators, performing arts producers, museum directors, and academics as part of a unique collaborative programming model. But the fixed operating costs of the greatly expanded facilities could not be sustained without a permanent endowment.
In order to continue its commitment to the avant-garde and experimental, the American Center decided to close the building in 1996 and became a “foundation without walls.” A new Board was formed and the property was sold to the French Ministry of Culture, with the proceeds used to create the American Center Foundation.
The American Center Foundation started making grants in 1999. The new Board, composed entirely of arts professionals, considered all grants and made all funding decisions. This exceptional structure of a board-driven organization relying on values of solidarity and community-building persists today. Starting with a $16,000,000 endowment, which has grown to a current value of $30,000,000, the Foundation has awarded more than 800 grants totaling nearly $20,000,000. Originally focused on the French-American axis that the American Center had nurtured for many years, it evolved into supporting artists and curators from all over the world by commissioning new works and funding exhibitions, publications, film screenings, and symposia.
In 2001 the Fund for Arts Research program was created to help independent curators and a younger generation of art professionals working in institutions to travel and do their own research when such need was under-recognized. Over the following two decades, grants were awarded to more than 300 curators, artists, researchers and others in the visual arts in 61 countries, many of whom became preeminent in their fields. Several developed new ideas and projects as a result of their research and some of those projects were then funded by the Foundation.
In 2006 the Foundation started making grants to help institutions with their day-to-day activities and programs. These unrestricted grants came from understanding the importance of supporting organizations, many artist-run, that are active on the ground and that help sustain entire communities.
In 2008 the American Center Foundation changed its name to Foundation for Arts Initiatives, known as FfAI, in order to better reflect the nature and scope of its work. Since then, the Foundation has been focusing on such concerns as the creation and dissemination of knowledge through a redefinition of archives, supporting the work of independent groups and collectives, and the establishment of networks in the form of institutional support.
In recent years FfAI has been focusing its support on individuals, collectives, and institutions whose research and practice attempts to understand and respond to the exigencies due to the erosion of rights, culture wars, populism, public intimidation, and financial castigation.