Origins and Founders of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation was established in 1969 by Ailsa Mellon Bruce and Paul Mellon through the consolidation of the foundations each had established more than two decades earlier. They named the new foundation in honor of their father, Andrew W. Mellon.
Ailsa Mellon Bruce was a noted philanthropist and patron of the arts. Born in Pittsburgh in 1901, she attended Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut, and later served as her father’s official hostess when he was US Secretary of the Treasury and ambassador to the Court of St. James. In 1940, she established the Avalon Foundation, which made grants to cultural institutions, colleges and universities, hospitals, medical schools, youth programs and community service organizations, churches, and conservation projects. Avalon also arranged to purchase Hampton, a historic mansion near Baltimore, for the US National Park Service. From its creation through the end of 1968, Avalon awarded more than $67 million, with a significant part of this sum supporting organizations in the New York metropolitan area, including a grant that helped create the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. In addition to Avalon’s beneficiaries, Bruce made major grants to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. She died on August 25, 1969, shortly after the Mellon Foundation was formed. Her estate contributed substantial additional funds to the Foundation for years to come. Her passionate interest in the arts, in particular, remains a principal focus of the Foundation’s work.
Paul Mellon had a deep and abiding interest in higher education, the humanities, and the arts. Born in 1907 in Pittsburgh and educated at Yale, Cambridge, and St. John’s College in Annapolis, he went on to become a renowned collector and philanthropist. In 1941, he formed the Old Dominion Foundation, which focused on higher education (especially in the humanities and the liberal arts) and to a lesser extent on research and publication in the fine arts, training for museum curators, art conservation, and conservation projects in his adopted Virginia. Like Avalon, Old Dominion also funded an array of progressive causes, including the United Negro College Fund, Hampton Institute, and museums of African and African American art. Old Dominion made $98 million in grants over its lifetime, although this was just a fraction of Paul Mellon’s charitable giving, which included significant donations to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and a founding gift of cash and art to the Yale Center for British Art.
Paul Mellon served as a trustee of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for sixteen years (1969–85). In that time, he helped shape the enduring character and significance of the Foundation. The broad directions he encouraged at the outset, in higher education, the humanities, and the arts, continue today as Foundation grantmaking priorities. At the same time, Mellon and his fellow trustees remained open to new areas of interest. He insisted on thoughtful and rigorous evaluation both of individual grants and of the larger strategic directions of the Foundation, as well as on meeting the highest standards of quality in all that the Foundation did. He believed that philanthropists could strengthen the effect of their gifts by identifying important trends and opportunities where they might make distinctive contributions, understanding and articulating the long-term goals, and then relying on the ablest people and institutions to carry out the programs in their own considered way.
The kind of philanthropy that Paul Mellon promoted set high expectations and assumed a high degree of trust and collaboration between a foundation and its grantees. As John E. Sawyer, a former president of the Foundation, wrote, “Paul Mellon has brought to all we have done and all we thought about doing a commitment to enlightened philanthropy that has enabled the Foundation to transcend any play of special interests or diversion to narrower goals.”1
1. Adapted from Hanna H. Gray and William G. Bowen, “Paul Mellon, 1907–1999,” The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Annual Report, 1998, 7.
Introduction: A Philosophy of Giving, Adapted for a Changing World
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation was established in 1969 to support the arts and humanities and their contributions to human flourishing. Today, that mission remains unchanged. Even as other funders have shifted priorities or reinvented themselves entirely, Mellon has held true to its founding commitments, secure in its conviction that the arts and humanities are essential to the health of a diverse, just, and democratic society. Thus, while it no longer ranks among the very largest foundations as it once did, Mellon—now the nation’s largest funder in the humanities—has become all the more important and influential in its fields of interest.
Mellon also stands out for the coherence of its grantmaking philosophy. The main elements—a quest for grantees and initiatives of high quality; a preference for building intellectual and creative capital over shaping policy; a focus on long-term investment; and a personal, unbureaucratic mode of giving—all date to the Foundation’s early years. Of these principles, support for excellence is perhaps the most prominent, yet also the most pragmatic. Nurturing quality, Mellon reasoned, promised the highest return on philanthropic investment—not only because such projects could be expected to yield outstanding work but also because in doing so, they could serve as models for others. Over time, a Mellon grant became synonymous with excellence, which only increased a grantee’s standing in the eyes of other funders and thus further leveraged Mellon’s resources. Even as the Foundation has broadened its search for excellence, it continues to make high standards of rigor, imagination, and discovery the determining criteria of its support.Mellon Foundation President William Bowen (back row, center) with program staff, 1988. Photo: The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Mellon’s concern for strengthening the arts and humanities was most evident in its support for the work of visionary scholars and artists. In fact, the Foundation has always been less interested in driving a particular policy or reform agenda than in funding people and projects it wagered could advance knowledge and artistic creation. Such principles led to Mellon’s formative investments in the field of art conservation and to its long-standing support for single-choreographer dance companies; its long-running program of graduate fellowships, which aimed to attract talented students to doctoral study; and its Sawyer Seminars and faculty research and curatorial fellowships, which were designed not only to support excellence but also to stimulate new forms of humanistic inquiry. These and other Mellon programs were the arts and humanities equivalent of basic scientific research, undertaken in the same belief that such investments were a necessary condition of innovation regardless of the long time horizons involved.
Indeed, Mellon has exhibited an uncommon willingness to sustain investments over time. While it has often acted quickly to meet urgent needs or intervened to support what was underfunded or out of favor, it has also recognized that deep institutional change rarely happens over three-and five-year funding cycles. Therefore the Foundation has always been a long-term investor. Whether its goal is diversifying the professoriate, reforming graduate education, or developing the repertoire of new American opera, Mellon has offered the patient capital that grantees need to accumulate knowledge and experience or drive sustainable improvements—the kind of capital that is in increasingly short supply amid the vogue for metrics and immediate outcomes. And when it has exited large-scale projects or programs, it has often done so with large endowment or challenge grants intended to set up grantees for accomplishment in the long term.
None of this was a guarantee of success; yet Mellon has seemed more willing than many funders to accept the risk of failure as the price of progress. This is reflected in its conviction that a “worthwhile experiment, if it is to be useful, must be expected sometimes to involve failure,” as one group of Mellon trustees put it in 1996. The Foundation, moreover, has been eager to learn from its experiments, successful and otherwise. It has used what it gleaned from regular internal reviews and outside evaluations to shape future grantmaking, and then made these insights public for the benefit of grantees and the rest of the field.
Finally, Mellon has long been unusual among major foundations for its highly collegial style of grantmaking, one that derived from the quality and experience of its program staff. As first-rate scholars and other senior figures in higher education and the arts, Mellon’s program officers have been inclined to view their grantees not as supplicants but as partners. They have listened for good ideas while also testing these ideas for imagination and feasibility. They have also invested time, sometimes a very long time, in getting to know prospective grantees, taking the view (as former Mellon president William G. Bowen put it) that “long courtships lead to happy marriages.” Thus could program officers afford to entrust grantees with the freedom to explore and take risks even as they reserved the right to nudge them in directions they might not otherwise be ready to go. This informality has yielded somewhat to the systems and structures needed to ensure equity and transparency and to cope with an increasing scale of grantmaking. But not by much. Even now, Mellon continues to see both virtue and value in its comparatively unbureaucratic approach to philanthropy.
The continuity of Mellon’s grantmaking priorities and principles is all the more remarkable considering the dramatic changes taking place in philanthropy, higher education, and the arts over the past fifty years. Yet if history reveals anything about Mellon, it is the highly adaptive nature of its philanthropy, one that has repeatedly shifted tactics even as its purposes remained constant. Time and again, the Foundation has helped grantees evolve in response to a changing world: through the development of promising intellectual and artistic perspectives and new fields of expertise; through support for technologies designed to enhance teaching and scholarship or generate administrative efficiencies; through strategies to build long-term financial stability and organizational health; and through opening higher education and the arts to more diverse talents and experience.
Supporting its grantees as they evolved has often required the Foundation itself to change. Over the last decade, Mellon has not only expanded its family of grantees to include more and different kinds of institutions; it has also institutionalized its commitment to diversity, bringing a wider-ranging social justice perspective to its work. And it has begun to use its bully pulpit as the preeminent funder of the arts and humanities in order to increase public understanding and appreciation of these fields. This agility has owed much to Mellon’s presidents, trustees, and senior staff, who remained deeply attuned to the changing needs of fields of support while also demonstrating an unusual fidelity to Mellon’s mission.
Perhaps more than anything, it is this deliberate balancing of continuity and change, tradition and innovation, that is responsible for Mellon’s impact over five decades. That impact is the subject of the following essays.
The defining theme of the Mellon Foundation’s first fifty years is its unwavering commitment to the humanities through support for exemplary institutions of higher education. This commitment began with Mellon’s donors, Ailsa Mellon Bruce and Paul Mellon. Their decision to merge their individual charitable foundations was inspired in no small way by a desire to strengthen the role of the humanities in higher education, which, they believed, had come to overemphasize the physical sciences. The Foundation’s own rationale for such investments was first articulated by its second president, Nathan M. Pusey. The best way to cope with the world’s problems, he argued in 1973, was through the deeper “knowledge of human nature and human potential” that an education in “the liberal studies and the arts” could provide. That, he concluded, should be Mellon’s primary concern. Thus, even as it was fine-tuning its grantmaking, Mellon made clear its determination to sustain the humanities as an essential element of higher education.
This grantmaking priority was reflected in Mellon’s numerous “countercyclical” investments over the following decade, all of them geared to assist colleges and universities as they managed the consequences of overexpansion in the postwar era. To help liberal arts colleges cope with shrinking enrollments in the early 1970s, the Foundation invested heavily in humanities faculty development and retraining and curricular revitalization at leading colleges, which it considered necessary to satisfy the needs and interests of a new generation of students. In 1974, amid an excess supply of humanities PhDs that made it difficult for even the most gifted young scholars to find jobs, it moved to maintain the flow of talent into the academy with an initiative to increase junior-faculty and postdoctoral positions at twenty-four private research universities.
In the 2010s, the Foundation began to support many more public institutions, such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with historic distinction in the humanities. Photo by Bryce Richter /UW-Madison.
Then, as the crippling inflation of the late 1970s forced budget cuts that fell disproportionately on humanities departments, Mellon responded with its “Funds for the 1980s.” Prepaid in full yet spendable over an unusually long period of seven to ten years, these innovative grants allowed institutions to benefit from the high yields generated by inflation to create a third income stream between endowment income and annual giving. Applied mostly to new postdoctoral and faculty appointments, the “1980s Funds” helped nurture leadership in the humanities through hard times.
The economics of higher education in the 1980s would prove especially daunting for liberal arts colleges. Without the large bases of alumni giving or federal and corporate research grants that private research universities enjoyed, these institutions struggled to meet the burden of faculty and administrative salaries as well as the soaring costs of library materials, scientific equipment, and new technology. Mellon responded with programs that aimed both to reduce costs and to improve educational effectiveness by fostering institutional collaboration. Beginning in the early 1990s, the Foundation funded a range of collaborative approaches to faculty career enhancement, faculty staffing, study abroad programs, and administrative services, often with the cooperation of existing college consortia. Technology would become one of its principal levers of collaboration among colleges, with the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, which helped college faculties and libraries integrate digital tools into their work, one notable example.
The future of America’s faculty in the humanities and humanistic social sciences was the focus of two major initiatives in graduate study. The first was a national program of portable, multiyear graduate fellowships in the humanities, launched in 1983. Mellon had declined to fund doctoral education in the 1970s for fear of adding to the oversupply of PhDs. But with an increase in college enrollments by children of baby boomers and the retirement of current tenured faculty widely expected to yield a shortage of college teachers by the early 1990s, the Foundation saw a need to prepare the way for the next generation of scholars. The highly selective nature of its fellowship program underscored Mellon’s determination that these new faculty should include truly critical and creative minds. By the time it ended in 2005, Mellon’s graduate fellowship program (revamped in 1991 to focus on the first year of doctoral study) had provided funding for some 2,300 students of great academic promise.
A second initiative addressed the capacity of America’s graduate schools to satisfy the anticipated demand for college teachers. The Graduate Education Initiative (GEI), a decade-long program of grants to ten leading graduate schools, aimed to reduce attrition and time-to-degree, which Mellon’s then-president, William G. Bowen, saw as the significant problems facing doctoral education in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. Inaugurated in the 1991–92 academic year, GEI funded financial incentives and other programmatic changes designed to make doctoral education both more efficient and more effective. Indeed, the goal was not simply to graduate more PhDs but also to enhance the quality of their training, which GEI did. By helping academic departments think more methodically about degree requirements, funding practices, and student advising, GEI was widely seen to have improved doctoral education nationwide. It also helped to make guaranteed student funding the norm for some institutions, easing the financial burdens of their graduate students.
Even as it was investing in a new generation of faculty, Mellon was concerned that abstruse language and fragmented course offerings had made it increasingly difficult for many humanities disciplines to engage undergraduates, much less to demonstrate the value of those disciplines to public life. The Foundation therefore made support for interdisciplinary teaching and research a priority. Mellon’s Fresh Combinations initiative, which ran from 1983 to 1987, made significant investments in stimulating research and teaching across fields of study. Meanwhile, a second but no less important objective of its graduate fellowship program was to attract scholars with a larger vision of teaching and learning than had characterized the highly specialized approach to graduate education in recent years.
Topics of Sawyer Seminars have ranged from politics, economics, and the law to poetry, art, and cinema, including the films of Soviet director Dziga Vertov, above. Photo: Lebrecht Music & Arts/Alamy.
Mellon extended its support for interdisciplinary teaching and research with the launch of its Sawyer Seminars in 1994. Named in honor of Mellon’s third president, John E. Sawyer, who had spearheaded earlier efforts to transcend specialization in the humanities, the seminars focused on “comparative study of the historical and cultural origins of contemporary social, political, and economic developments.” By creating temporary spaces for interdisciplinary inquiry on campuses, Mellon avoided imposing the bureaucratic and financial burden of permanent cross-departmental programs or research centers on the institutions hosting them. The Sawyer Seminars went on to become Mellon’s flagship program for interdisciplinary teaching and research, with nearly 200 short-term seminars held at more than sixty institutions to date.
Mellon’s support for humanistic scholarship and teaching had never stopped at the water’s edge, a reflection of the growing internationalization of American higher education in the 1970s and 1980s. Mellon had long funded area studies programs as well as other research of international scope in fields such as population and environmental studies; it also made grants to non-US libraries and centers for advanced studies. However, it was the collapse of repressive regimes around the world in the late 1980s that prompted the Foundation’s most ambitious interventions in support of the humanities abroad.
The first such efforts came in apartheid-era South Africa, where Mellon’s initial grants, for library and faculty development, went to the University of Cape Town, the University of Witwatersrand, and the University of the Western Cape—all “open” universities that did not discriminate against blacks. These were modest investments, intended merely to plant “a small flag in support of beleaguered educational institutions of high standards.” Following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, Mellon expanded its South Africa program as foundation philanthropy in general shifted from undercutting the white Nationalist regime to reforming institutional cultures that had been distorted by years of apartheid policies. In Mellon’s second decade in South Africa, the Foundation would quadruple its investment there.
University of Cape Town. The collapse of repressive regimes around the world in the 1980s prompted the Foundation to support the humanities abroad, including in South Africa. Photo: University of Cape Town.
Mellon’s South African investments in the humanities took a variety of forms, including the training of young scholars; expanding access to higher education (particularly through support for historically black universities); strengthening library resources and regional consortia; building digital collections; and support for increasing access to the Internet. Other foundations engaged in South Africa during the 1990s were occupied with civil society grants in primary and secondary education, health, and economic development. Mellon, for its part, saw its support for higher education and the humanities as a valuable form of nation-building, one that could help strengthen the intellectual life of a fledgling democracy.
The same belief in the power of superior teaching and research in the humanities led Mellon to intervene in Eastern Europe following the revolutions of 1989. In addition to funding training in market economics, Mellon’s investments were weighted toward research libraries, which played a crucial role in both scholarship and teaching. Between 1990 and 1997, Mellon funded library automation efforts in more than eighty research libraries in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic as well as Estonia and Latvia, to accompany a significant investment in training of administrators and librarians. This support for institutions of research and higher learning made Mellon unique among the seventeen foundations active in the region.
Mellon had long focused its support for the humanities on private research universities and liberal arts colleges. By the mid-2000s, however, steady disinvestment in public education had resulted in severe cutbacks at state institutions, especially in the humanities. Mellon therefore moved substantially to increase its support for distinguished humanistic scholarship and teaching at public institutions. In 2007, for example, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of California at Los Angeles each received endowment grants as part of a program to support institutions with historic distinction in the humanities. That same year, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill received significant funding to reinvigorate its program in medieval and early modern studies. Such grants signified Mellon’s commitment, as then-president Don Randel declared, “to sustain the humanities in the nation’s great public universities.” They also foreshadowed a shift in grantmaking priorities in later years. Recognizing that funding excellence wherever it resides could leverage the impact of its considerable but still finite resources, the Foundation began to assist many more public institutions as well as a broader range of private universities and liberal arts colleges than it had in the past.
The 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath, meanwhile, sparked new challenges for the humanities, including a collapse in faculty hiring and further cuts to beleaguered humanities programs at public institutions. Mellon’s immediate response included such emergency measures as the New Faculty Fellows program. In its first two years of operation, the program, administered by the American Council of Learned Societies, funded nearly 170 postdoctoral positions for new PhDs in the humanities and humanistic social sciences who had no full-time academic employment. A 2010 challenge grant to the University of Wisconsin (to be matched one-to-one by the state) went to bolster core disciplines, hire new faculty, and support postdoctoral and graduate students in the humanities.
Artist and writer José Faus leads a Humanities Kansas workshop as a follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize nationwide Campfires initiative—conversations about the impact of journalism and the humanities in public life. Photo by Ann Dean.
The more significant of Mellon’s initiatives following the 2008 financial crisis were geared to help the humanities adapt to long-term changes. The Foundation invested in faculty development and curricular and pedagogic innovation that liberal arts colleges needed to meet the teaching and learning expectations of their increasingly tech-savvy, career-minded students. It funded innovative forms of humanistic inquiry with the potential to engage more scholars and students. A five-year grant to Duke University, for example, supported Humanities Writ Large, which brought together faculty members and undergraduate and graduate students to create humanities-based networks in collaboration with neighboring colleges and universities. Mellon also facilitated research on the state of the humanities as a whole. Between 2005 and 2013, it funded development of the Humanities Indicators database, the first central repository and authoritative source of information on the state of humanities education, the humanities workforce, levels and sources of program funding, and public understanding and impact of the humanities, past and present.
At the same time, Mellon began to reckon with the persistent shortage of tenured faculty positions in the humanities—a trend that only worsened after 2008 with the precipitous drop in the number of undergraduate humanities majors. The Foundation supported programs to help graduate students prepare for careers beyond the academy. One such initiative, by the American Historical Association, aimed to connect PhDs to positions in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Another, the Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows program, which launched in 2011, offered recent humanities PhDs paid two-year placements in selected government agencies and nonprofits, and provided mentoring, career guidance, and networking opportunities for them. By 2016, more than a hundred fellows had participated in the program—a tiny fraction of the humanities PhDs then seeking academic employment, but the start of a long-term commitment by Mellon to help graduate schools rethink what they were training doctoral students to do.
The last decade, moreover, has seen Mellon embrace a vision of humanists as active contributors beyond the academy. In addition to its support for a major study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which made the case for the humanities’ essential role in public life, the Foundation began to engage scholars in a series of “grand challenge” questions with implications for public policy, such as migration, urbanization, and income inequality. Mellon also sought to build new publics for the humanities. One grant, to the National History Center, expanded the provision of nonpartisan briefings to Congress on topics that require historical understanding; another, to the Pulitzer Prize Centennial Campfires Initiative, funded a program of public conversations about journalism, literature, and the arts staged in collaboration with state humanities councils and other organizations.
A still from Hmong Memory at the Crossroads, a documentary produced under the auspices of the Humanities Without Walls Global Midwest Project. Photo: Michigan State University.
Mellon’s commitment to keeping the humanities vibrant and widely accessible remains undiminished. Grants to the University of Notre Dame and Reed College in 2018, for example, funded new ways of conceiving and presenting the undergraduate study of the humanities, while a program at Indiana University supported interdisciplinary humanities research with particular relevance to the state’s rural communities. New York University was the recipient of a 2019 grant to develop a PhD in the public humanities. And the ongoing Humanities Without Walls initiative, launched in 2013, supports humanities scholars from a consortium of fifteen Midwestern universities who collaborate on research into such issues as climate change, political and cultural divides, and the ethics surrounding the use of technology.
Together, such recent initiatives underscore Mellon’s most enduring belief: that humanistic teaching and scholarship are vital not only to excellence in higher education but also to the flourishing of democratic societies everywhere.
The advancement of humanistic scholarship has always been one of Mellon’s central aims. From the beginning, the Foundation has endeavored to spark inquiry and innovation through its support for the work of gifted scholars at every stage of their careers. It has attempted to strengthen this work by making transformative investments in the libraries and archives on which it depends, with an increasing emphasis on making more and different kinds of knowledge more widely available to larger numbers. And it has funded important research of its own in order to advance the state of knowledge and practice in its fields of interest.
Mellon’s focus on supporting scholars was evident in its first decade, which featured numerous grants to leading research libraries. To help expand the nation’s bibliographic infrastructure and make collections available to a wider range of patrons, Mellon joined other foundations to support the creation of a national computerized bibliographic system by the Council on Library Resources (CLR). It also funded the implementation of the Research Libraries Information Network, a pioneering cataloging system developed by the Research Libraries Group (RLG) that focused on research libraries and special collections. Mellon would prove to be a steady partner to both CLR and RLG (and RLG’s successor, Online Computer Library Center, or OCLC), recognizing the important role they played in helping libraries advance scholarship and public knowledge.
Recognizing the important role of libraries in advancing public knowledge, Mellon has funded efforts to strengthen the infrastructure of research centers such as the New York Public Library. Photo: Haizhan Zheng/Getty.
The distinguishing features of these early library initiatives—collaboration among grantees and early-stage investments in technology—have remained at the heart of Mellon-funded platforms for scholarly communications. Perhaps the most significant of these platforms was JSTOR. A pathbreaking digital journal storage project conceived in late 1993, JSTOR was designed to address a shortage of physical storage space in academic libraries. Ultimately, it had the effect of expanding access to journal literature worldwide. By 2005, JSTOR was made available through libraries in ninety-five countries outside the US, with institutions in Africa granted free access the following year. With a tiered-pricing model that aimed to make JSTOR affordable for the widest range of institutions at home and abroad, it also helped democratize access to knowledge and information.
Philosophy PhD and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow Karen Shanton in Denver, where she held a position at the National Council of State Legislatures. Photo: Matthew Staver/The New York Times/Redux Pictures.
More than anything, JSTOR served to remake scholarship for the digital age. In so doing, it spawned a series of Mellon-funded technology initiatives in the late 1990s aimed at expanding access to and use of scholarly resources. One such initiative was Artstor. Designed to digitize, store, and distribute images for the study of art and related fields, it did for slide collections what JSTOR had done for shelves of print journals. An early Artstor project, for example, resulted in a digital archive that united images of cave art in Dunhuang, in northwestern China, with images of Dunhuang scrolls, manuscripts, textiles, and other objects from museum collections around the world. The Global Plants Initiative was yet another project modeled after JSTOR. Launched in 2003 with African plants and later expanded to encompass all plants worldwide, the program digitized plant-type specimens along with botanical artwork, texts, and other artifacts. Today, the Global Plants Initiative holds nearly three million images of type specimens and other artifacts—the world’s largest database of digitized plant specimens, and all accessible for research online.
By the turn of the new millennium, more and more institutions had moved to digitize their paper-based collections, hoping greater access would stimulate further demand. Recognizing the limits of this “build it and they will come” approach, Mellon began to give priority to projects that scholars themselves would see as important, which in turn would help such projects attract the financial support they needed to become self-sustaining. For example, the Foundation’s grants to digitize materials in interdisciplinary fields, such as archaeology focused on slavery, built on collections whose true value could not be realized until they were united with the aid of technology. The same objective was behind the Foundation’s long-term partnership with CLR to catalog and later digitize “hidden collections” of primary source materials that were otherwise unavailable to scholars.
Creating a digital archive of the cave temples of Dunhuang, China. Photo: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images.
More recently, as digital tools and new media have become broadly accepted among institutions of higher education, Mellon has set out to “make the digital environment a natural place to do scholarship,” as one program officer put it. In 2014, it launched a new initiative designed to legitimize digital scholarship, channeling funds to a small number of university presses to test new business models for publication. The Foundation has also invested in digitizing rare and hitherto inaccessible archival materials and in preserving and cataloging “born digital” materials that will be critical for the work of future researchers.
Like its funding for technology and scholarly communications, Mellon’s massive investment in faculty fellowships in the early 2000s was designed to help scholars adapt to new opportunities and challenges. The Foundation funded assistant professors seeking to meet the higher bar for tenure and recently tenured faculty engaged in ambitious, long-term projects. It also offered partial sabbatical support for mid-career professors and emeritus fellowships that enabled distinguished late-career scholars to continue their research programs. Added to this slate of fellowships was the New Directions program: an ongoing initiative that encourages the creation of new forms of inquiry in the humanities by giving scholars the time and resources they need to seek training outside their core disciplines.
Mellon’s support for research and scholarship was never limited to the academic humanities. The Foundation also funded researchers working on issues of pressing social concern. In 1979, for example, it launched a series of junior faculty fellowships in ecology designed to stimulate research on unconventional yet potentially field-changing ideas. Mellon also supported two ecological research initiatives lasting more than twenty years: one for training and research in tropical ecology; the other for multidisciplinary studies of the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, which demonstrated the value of a community of ecologists working with a single ecosystem for an extended period. This was the kind of patient, long-term approach, as one Mellon program officer quoted the British ecologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson, that “delights in understanding nature rather than in attempting to reform her.”
Long-term research at Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest has shaped the field of ecology. Photo: Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest.
Mellon’s grantmaking in population research and demography, meanwhile, funded efforts to understand the motivations behind reproductive choices and thereby shape family-planning policies in countries around the world. With the growth of forced migration in the early 1990s, the Foundation adapted this program to the needs of refugees, with a characteristic concern to build knowledge for the field. Thus, Mellon funded research designed to improve the policies and practices of international organizations like the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Save the Children. Equally importantly, it established or endowed centers for refugee studies at leading institutions such as Columbia, Georgetown, Tufts, the University of Pennsylvania, Oxford, and the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. More recently, as refugee crises in Syria and in Central America have drawn renewed attention to the plight of migrants, Mellon has rekindled its interest in the field—this time by supporting refugee scholars themselves. A 2017 grant to the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, for instance, supported the placement of refugee scholars in German universities, while another grant to the IRC that same year funded the training of teachers who worked with the growing numbers of displaced students in Lebanon and Iraq.
Mellon’s belief in the value of research ultimately led the Foundation to establish its own in-house research apparatus. Beginning in the 1990s, Mellon staff, alone or with outside scholars and researchers, produced an extraordinary range of publications on critical issues in higher education and philanthropy, including graduate education, nonprofit and foundation governance, the role of athletics in college life, and diversity in higher education. This ambitious research program gathered talented people and invested in major data collection, above all the College and Beyond database. In its first phase of development in the mid-1990s, College and Beyond comprised institutional and survey data on more than 93,000 undergraduates who had matriculated at thirty-four academically selective colleges and universities over nearly four decades. Mellon made College and Beyond available to scholars investigating problems in higher education, particularly those involving race and opportunity, resulting in another stream of studies. By thus shaping problems and choices for the field, Mellon came to function as a research institute—the “R&D of education,” as one university president put it in 1999. Though it wound down its in-house research program in the mid-2000s, the Foundation continued its support for research in higher education with the Mellon Research Forum: a program of multidisciplinary studies intended to yield data, ideas, and concrete policy recommendations on issues of concern to Mellon and its grantees.
One of 576 Islamic manuscripts and 827 paintings—previously inaccessible to scholars—digitized by the Free Library of Philadelphia, with support from CLIR’s Hidden Collections program. Photo: Free Library of Philadelphia.
Today, Mellon is deepening its support for research with efforts to recognize and preserve knowledge—including that produced by or about underserved communities—that would otherwise be lost to history. Support for the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University School of Law, for instance, is intended to create an inclusive digital record of racial terror in the American South, ensuring preservation of and public access to records of incidents that are thinly documented but nonetheless part of Americans’ shared history. And recent work in community-based archives located outside of traditional institutions continues the process of making knowledge more accessible with new initiatives designed to expand the boundaries of what “belongs” in an archive and who gets to decide.
Such work builds on an enduring belief at Mellon: that scholarship is only as strong as thescholars who conduct it, the resources they have at their disposal, and the diverse audiences they can reach—all of which are strengthened by expanding access to knowledge in all its forms.
Over the past five decades, the Mellon Foundation has helped advance the work of a diverse range of museums and cultural institutions, performing arts organizations, and fields of artistic exploration. Through its support for creative excellence, together with a more recent emphasis on enhancing social justice, Mellon’s arts grantmaking reflects the conviction that art is uniquely valuable to the human experience.
The Foundation’s devotion to the arts can be traced to its namesake, Andrew W. Mellon. The banker and industrialist was a serious collector who amassed a significant collection of paintings and sculpture, especially Old Master canvases and British portraits. Shortly before his death in 1937, Mellon promised much of this collection to the nation and provided the funds to construct and endow the National Gallery of Art, which was to be free to all. Ailsa Mellon Bruce and Paul Mellon shared their father’s love for art, and when their individual charitable foundations merged in 1969 to form The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Gallery remained a priority. The new foundation appropriated major sums for the construction of the Gallery’s East Building. Designed by I. M. Pei and opened in 1978, the East Building now houses the Gallery’s collection of modern and contemporary art as well as a library and the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, a research institute established in 1979 to study the production, use, and meaning of art and artifacts. Mellon’s special relationship with the National Gallery has endured, as a $30 million challenge grant in 2016 signified.
Consistent with the Mellon family’s interest in art, the Foundation made a far-reaching commitment to high-quality art conservation. The Research Center on the Materials of the Artist and Conservator at Carnegie Mellon University, a pioneering program in the application of science to art conservation, had been a beneficiary of the Mellon family foundations since 1950. In the late 1970s, the Mellon Foundation provided funding for the Center to train prospective conservators and to establish regional laboratories that could serve museums and institutes too small to maintain their own. These grants laid the groundwork for a national program of art conservation, one that would help address the growing preservation needs of expanding collections in American museums.
Students in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. Mellon grants played a major role in establishing the field of photograph conversation. Photo: University of Delaware.
The scope of Mellon’s engagement with the field of conservation science would continue to grow. In 2000, the Foundation launched a ten-year program of grants to twenty-one museums and universities. It also played a formative role in establishing the related field of photograph conservation, with a late 1990s program of funding for postdoctoral fellowships at the Art Institute of Chicago and support for advanced training of specialists at the George Eastman House in Rochester. By the time this program ended in 2009, it had helped to train some forty researchers from twenty countries, who were now prepared to support the growing number of invaluable collections worldwide.
Besides its concern for art conservation, Mellon’s museum funding continued to emphasize core activities like curatorship and the scholarly publications linked to permanent collections, as it did with the launch of Mellon’s namesake curatorial fellowships in 1996. Mellon also moved to stimulate a wider appreciation of art. In the early 1990s, it expanded its grantmaking portfolio with substantial funding to a group of forty institutions. And as the early digital age began to alter the way museums organized and presented their collections, the Foundation provided major grants to institutions such as the Frick Collection and the Museum of Modern Art to support their creation of public online catalogs.
Mellon, moreover, added support for an entirely new category of institution. The College and University Art Museum Program (CUAM), launched in 1992, was designed to strengthen the role of museums in the educational missions of their parent institutions. Like the best Mellon grants, CUAM was a modest investment that nonetheless generated an outsized return. Not only did art museums at grantee institutions become more deeply integrated into undergraduate and graduate teaching and scholarship over the next decade; they also became significant fundraisers, attracting more resources from donors and from their parent institutions.
Negro Ensemble Company actors in London, circa 1969. Photo Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
Mellon’s early investments in the creative and performing arts, meanwhile, adhered to high standards even as they sought to recognize the emergence of new art forms in new places. Its grantees during the 1970s included professional nonprofit theater companies such as the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, the Yale Repertory and Long Wharf theaters in New Haven, and the Negro Ensemble Company in New York; and modern dance companies, including those led by Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, and Alvin Ailey. Besides acknowledging the growth of regional American theater outside of New York and branching out from Mellon’s traditional support for classical ballet, these and other Mellon arts grants were notable for the broad discretion they gave to artistic directors of demonstrated excellence for experiments that would advance their art. Such discretion would become a hallmark of Mellon support for the arts in general.
Mellon also deployed its resources to improve the financial health of arts organizations, whose response to the growing professionalization of the arts in the 1970s brought spiraling costs that their fragile financial assets could not always cover. In 1977, the Foundation embarked on a major program of matching endowment grants to thirty-one symphony orchestras in collaboration with the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1983, Mellon then joined with the Ford and Rockefeller foundations to form the National Arts Stabilization Fund (NASF). Pairing national foundation and corporate money with matching contributions from local sources, NASF helped art museums, performing arts organizations, and arts training organizations generate liquidity and working capital reserves in hopes of building long-term stability.
Financial sustainability became a greater concern for arts organizations as they sought to cope with shrinking federal funding. In 1980, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) ranked as the largest single funder of the arts in the United States; the following year, the Reagan administration came into office determined to eliminate the NEA altogether. A presidential task force, whose members included future Mellon leaders Hanna H. Gray and William G. Bowen, made a compelling case for federal funding of the arts and humanities. The NEA survived, yet its budget continued to decline. While private funders made up most of the shortfall, these patrons often funded special projects rather than general operating support, which was among the hardest money to raise.
Mellon, for its part, saw these changing funding patterns as all the more reason to carry on supporting core artistic activities—intrinsic-value funding that had become increasingly rare among arts grantmakers concerned with instrumental outcomes. The Foundation nevertheless made a point to seek out those organizations and activities most in need. Beginning in the early 1990s, it ramped up its support for theater development, once an NEA staple, with an innovative program of multiyear grants to twenty-four theaters that aimed to help grantees realize their self-defined artistic and administrative goals. In music, it extended its grantmaking beyond major New York institutions such as the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic to include small and midsize orchestras and opera companies, many located outside major cultural centers. The Foundation’s massive, ten-year orchestra program, launched in 1999, emphasized the reform of organizational cultures as a means for musicians and orchestra leadership to realize shared artistic goals.
Peggy Lyman Hayes and Peter Sparling in "Conversation of Lovers" from Acts of Light. Choreography by Martha Graham. Photo: Martha Swope ©New York Public Library.
In dance, Mellon (often in partnership with the NEA) supported efforts to carry on the legacy of great choreographers through grants to preserve texts, scores, and performance records at regional ballet and modern dance companies. (These grants, mainly to university libraries or nonprofit coalitions, anticipated funding for dance preservation in the 2000s that went directly to performing arts organizations such as the Martha Graham Dance Company and the Cunningham Dance Foundation.) And even as it supported the preservation of these legacies, Mellon continued to fund the creation of new work by pioneering choreographers such as Bill T. Jones, Eiko & Koma, and Elizabeth Streb.
While these and other long-term initiatives accounted for the vast majority of its arts grantmaking, Mellon also responded quickly at moments of acute need. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Foundation established a $50 million relief fund, primarily dedicated to institutions in New York City, its longtime home. This appropriation—philanthropy’s largest single commitment in response to September 11—helped museums, performing arts organizations, libraries, other cultural institutions, and individual artists weather the loss of audiences. It also funded the refurbishment of public parks where people had congregated in the days and weeks after the disaster. Likewise, after Hurricane Sandy pummeled New York and New Jersey in 2012, the Foundation made emergency grants to aid the recovery of performing arts organizations and cultural institutions such as the Eyebeam Atelier and the South Street Seaport Museum.
In the arts no less than in its other fields of interest, Mellon understood the importance of helping grantees adapt to a changing environment for their work. As diminishing leisure time, the rise of digital technology, and shifting demographics combined to erode traditional audiences for the visual and performing arts, it funded efforts both to improve the quality of new work and to build new and diverse audiences. A modest grant in 2006 funded the first live Metropolitan Opera broadcasts of six operas to some 250 movie theaters, which greatly enlarged the national audience for opera and generated revenue worth 1.5 times the value of the grant. The Foundation invested deeply to help composers, choreographers, playwrights, and multidisciplinary artists create and develop new work. In 2008, for example, it altered its long-standing National Theater Program by awarding grants to play development centers and theaters that prioritized artist-centric practices. It also continued to attend to the financial well-being of its arts grantees through such programs as the Comprehensive Organizational Health Initiative. Launched in 2015 in partnership with the Nonprofit Finance Fund, the program has so far committed more than $30 million to support capitalization, financial analysis, and leadership development at a wide array of small to midsize arts organizations, including members of the National Performance Network and the International Association of Blacks in Dance.
Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Company. Photo: Cleo Robinson Dance.
In recent years, Mellon has placed new emphasis on art as an instrument of social change. As the arts competed for funding amid the immense human and social service needs of the Great Recession, the Foundation joined a growing movement among funders to highlight the contribution of the arts to social and economic revitalization. That was the impetus behind the Foundation’s investment in ArtPlace America, an unusual collaboration of corporations, foundations, the NEA, and other federal agencies that sought to make artists and arts organizations central to their local communities. The National Playwright Residency Program had a similar objective. Launched in 2012 in collaboration with HowlRound Theatre Commons, an open platform for theater based at Emerson College in Boston, the program not only built ties between playwrights and their local communities but also facilitated artistic creation by locating playwrights in multiyear salaried positions at theaters around the country. Mellon also moved to underwrite more diverse artists and narratives. For instance, it funded the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions project: a cycle of thirty-seven plays, each focused on pivotal and often overlooked moments or eras in American history. And a major endowment grant for the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, opened in 2016, underscored Mellon’s determination to promote the representation of art from a broad range of artists.
The cast of Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, developed as part of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions Project and later staged on Broadway by the Public Theatre. Photo: ©Joan Marcus.
Today, Mellon continues to support the social purpose of the arts while also recognizing their intrinsic value. Grants to the Academy of American Poets, for instance, fund Local Poets Laureate Fellowships, which give poets the time to write while also engaging with their communities through poetry workshops and other public programming. Support for American opera—which began to experience a “golden era” starting in the twenty-first century, thanks in part to Mellon’s support of new work developed and produced at smaller regional opera companies—emphasizes operas that tell diverse human stories. And the ongoing National Playwright Residency Program has also nurtured the growth of diverse playwrights and institutions.
Initiatives like these reflect Mellon’s belief that art helps us explore and understand the human experience, a truth the Foundation has grasped from its earliest days.
Though long distinguished by its support for excellence, the Mellon Foundation has always recognized that excellence worthy of the name depends on a diversity of perspectives and experience. Mellon’s commitment to cultivating such diversity in higher education and the arts has expanded over time to encompass more communities, more fields, and more ways of addressing the challenges facing underrepresented groups.
Howard University graduates in the 1970s. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have been a major interest area for the Foundation since its founding. Photo:Charles H. Phillips/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images.
Founded in the wake of the civil rights movement and the still-unfolding women’s movement, Mellon demonstrated this commitment from its earliest days. Grants to Navajo Community College in Arizona and scholarships for African American students wishing to attend medical school, for example, were among the very first made in Mellon’s founding year. Reflecting the interests of its donors, the Foundation soon made historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) a focus of its support. In the early 1970s, it invested in faculty development at twenty-seven HBCUs; it also funded a separate program to raise the career possibilities of women graduates of those colleges. And in 1977, just as a temporary surge in funding for minority education by the Ford and Danforth foundations began to wind down, Mellon stepped in with two new programs designed to strengthen traditional arts and humanities subjects at HBCUs: one a series of faculty fellowships, mainly at the postdoctoral and pre-tenure level; the other for faculty development in departments of history, art, music, and art history.
In the 1970s, Mellon became a major funder of colleges in the Appalachian region, one of the nation’s poorest. Following a first major effort to support faculty and curricular development in 1978, the Foundation made the first of two rounds of funding in the following year to bring faculty members in the humanities at small liberal arts colleges in the region to the Appalachian Center at the University of Kentucky, where they could conduct summer research. The success of this endeavor ultimately attracted other funding that, together with another grant from Mellon, established the Appalachian College Association.
Mellon also was an early funder of community colleges, which by the early 1980s enrolled a disproportionately large share of first-generation, underrepresented, and low-income students yet received just 2 percent of private philanthropic funding. In 1979, Mellon and the National Endowment for the Humanities launched a joint effort to bring community college teachers in the New York metropolitan area to the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, where they studied curriculum development and pedagogical methods intended to make the humanities more accessible to their students. A similar program for urban universities aimed to improve teaching in the humanities for career-focused students. Mellon even ventured beyond higher education with a grant to the College Entrance Examination Board for the National Hispanic Scholarship Award. Established in 1983, the award aimed to encourage Hispanic high school students to attend stronger secondary schools or otherwise excel academically, thereby increasing their chances of attending college.
Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellows at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo: Hilary Walter.
Mellon soon turned its attention to the persistent lack of diversity among the nation’s faculty. The sharp drop in the proportion of African American graduate students in the early 1980s looked certain to exacerbate the already small percentage of minority faculty relative to their numbers in the college population. Addressing this pipeline problem was the focus of the Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF). As conceived and designed by Mellon’s then-president William G. Bowen and Henry Drewry, a pioneering African American educator and administrator at Princeton, MMUF sought out talented African American, Hispanic, and Native American students early in their undergraduate careers, encouraged them to consider pursuing academic careers, and prepared them to excel in graduate school. In collaboration with participating colleges, undergraduate fellows were assigned faculty mentors, were given stipends for term-time and summer research, and were promised help with repaying their undergraduate loans if they earned a doctorate in Mellon-designated fields in the arts and sciences. These generous financial terms, together with an emphasis on high academic standards and timely assistance, would distinguish MMUF from other undergraduate pathway programs.
Educator and civil rights leader Benjamin E. Mays. Photo: Larry Burrows/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images.
MMUF was inaugurated in the 1988–89 academic year with a cohort of ninety-two students enrolled in nineteen colleges and universities. Ten years later, the program had already demonstrated measurable progress in expanding the pool of graduate students from underrepresented groups. Mellon might have declared victory at this point; instead, it resolved to build on its early success. It went on to add more schools to the program throughout the 2000s. It also introduced assistance for the program’s tenure-track alumni, thereby enabling MMUF to build a network of scholars who had access to support from their undergraduate years all the way to achieving tenure.
At the same time, Mellon funded research designed to inform practices in diversity in higher education as a whole. None of these data-driven studies was more significant than The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (1998). Co-authored by Bowen and former Harvard president Derek Bok, The Shape of the River leveraged the grant dollars that Mellon was investing in research on higher education to make the public case for race-sensitive admissions. Drawing on data from Mellon’s College and Beyond database, evidence presented in the book demonstrated the positive long-term outcomes of diversity for both African American and white students in the same college. That evidence stimulated other scholars to examine the role of race in higher education and to make use of the College and Beyond data. It also figured prominently in cases concerning race-sensitive admissions, including at the University of Michigan, that were then making their way through the courts.
When those Michigan cases reached the US Supreme Court in 2002, there was a real risk that an adverse decision would also invalidate the use of race-targeted programs such as MMUF. In 2003, Mellon reaffirmed its commitment to MMUF’s diversity goals with two key changes to safeguard the program. One was to expand the mission and eligibility criteria to include nonminority candidates who have demonstrated a commitment to the goals of the program. The other was to rename the program itself, which now honors the legacy of Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, a noted African American educator and former president of Morehouse College. The elimination of racial exclusivity positioned MMUF to pass legal muster and continue advancing Mellon’s goal of fostering a diverse academy.
In the last decade, Mellon has continued to identify opportunities to increase access and diversity on college campuses. The Community College-Research University Partnership, launched in 2014, sought to establish and improve transfer pathways for aspiring humanities majors who wanted to advance to four-year colleges. It also funded training for PhD students to teach in community colleges.
The educational success of Latinx and Native American students became another priority for Mellon. Besides expanding MMUF to four new institutions along with the five colleges of the Claremont consortium, all with significant Latinx populations, the Foundation awarded grants to connect three Hispanic-serving institutions to major research universities interested in creating diverse pools of graduate school applicants. Echoing its earlier experiments in secondary education, Mellon also made grants to the American Indian College Fund and College Horizons, which promoted Native American students’ readiness for college through mentoring and other strategies.
A recognition of the profound human and social costs of America’s criminal justice policies also led Mellon to begin funding postsecondary education for incarcerated students. After its first such grants to Columbia and Cornell in 2015, the Foundation offered support the following year to the Opportunity Institute’s Renewing Communities program, which linked correctional facilities with the California State University system and community organizations. By 2019, the Foundation had invested nearly $18 million in prison education initiatives through liberal arts colleges and major research universities as well as arts organizations. These grants not only expanded course offerings inside prison walls, enabling incarcerated students to earn associate and bachelor’s degrees; they also funded research on criminal justice reforms. Yet Mellon’s ultimate goal in supporting prison education, as one Mellon program officer put it, was to help students “reclaim their humanity” through the study of the arts and humanities.
The Peabody Essex Museum hosts a fellowship program for emerging Native American cultural leaders. Photo: Peabody Essex Museum.
Under Earl Lewis’s leadership, Mellon’s emphasis on diversity moved beyond higher education to become a cross-cutting focus of all foundation programs. The Foundation, for example, made a series of grants to help underrepresented communities document and preserve their histories. Grants to several orchestras and consortia of training programs created opportunities and incentives for talented young musicians from disadvantaged communities to succeed in the hyper-competitive world of the performing arts.
Tackling entrenched barriers to diversity in the museum world, meanwhile, was the goal of Mellon’s Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship Program, launched in 2013. Modeled on the Getty Foundation’s Multicultural Undergraduate Internship Program as well as Mellon’s own MMUF, it placed undergraduates from underrepresented groups at major museums, where they could have access to the curatorial training and connections that might lead eventually to museum leadership positions.
To create a statistical baseline against which the success of this and other such programs could be measured, Mellon also funded a study of diversity among staff at 181 art museums. The resulting Art Museum Demographic Survey, published in 2015, revealed that few people of color held leadership positions in the curatorial, conservation, and education ranks, and only 28 percent of museum staff in the US belonged to racial and ethnic minorities (who nonetheless made up 38 percent of the population). Mellon then commissioned a series of case studies on museums’ responses to the evidence the museum survey had revealed, along with a separate survey of diversity in the staffs of academic research libraries. Like The Shape of the River and other Mellon-funded research on race in higher education, the museum demographic survey revealed the true measure of the problem at hand, enabling Mellon and others who shared its concerns to build support for greater staff diversity. In fact, the survey attracted wide media coverage and inspired other funders and institutional actors to undertake similar survey efforts, including the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. In 2017, the Ford Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation announced their own $6 million initiative to diversify the leadership of art museums.
Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellows at a conference, circa 2015. Photo: MMUF.
Today, led by President Elizabeth Alexander, the Foundation maintains the goal of expanding access to and participation in the arts and humanities. Fellowships at the Peabody Essex and Heard museums, for example, aim to reconnect Native American communities with museums and Native American art collections. Funding for the National Alliance for Audition Support seeks to increase diversity in the nation’s professional orchestras by removing financial barriers for musicians from underrepresented groups to audition for them. Support for NXTHVN, a community hub in the majority-minority Dixwell neighborhood of New Haven, Connecticut, helps train the next generation of artists and curators from communities of color. MMUF remains a cornerstone of Mellon’s diversity efforts, with notable results. Of some 5,000 students who have been selected as MMUF fellows by 2019, nearly 1,000 to date have gone on to earn the PhD—a significant increase in the number of minority PhDs. Of these, more than 120 have achieved tenure.
Underlying all of this is a belief that has consistently guided Mellon’s work: that higher education and the arts must remain open to diverse talent if they are to fulfill their intellectual, aesthetic, and social promise in a democratic society. In acting on this belief, the Foundation has exhibited another long-standing attribute: patience. What is common to all of Mellon’s diversity initiatives, past and present—from HBCUs and community colleges to pathway programs like MMUF and from the undergraduate curatorial fellowships to the museum and library demographic surveys—is a willingness to invest for the long term, because effecting social change of such magnitude takes time. As one program officer put it, “I’m not funding your present. I’m funding your future.”
Written by John Seaman and Arielle Gorin.
Charles S. Hamilton (1969–1971)
Nathan Pusey (1971–1975)
John E. Sawyer (1975–1987)
William G. Bowen (1988–2006)
Don Michael Randel (2006–2013)
Earl Lewis (2013–2018)
Introductory image grid credits: Top row: Larry Burrows/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images; Karli Cadel; Library of Congress. Bottom row: Getty Images/Dora Dalto; Peabody Essex Museum; Jack Mitchell/Getty Images.