The Mellon Foundation at Fifty

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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.

Origins and Founders of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

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Ailsa Mellon Bruce

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 Secretaryof 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.

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Paul Mellon

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 overits 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 aboutdoing 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

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.

03_Mellon_Staff_1988.jpgMellon 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 theymight 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.

I. Sustaining the Humanities in Higher Education

I. Sustaining the Humanities in Higher Education

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.

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II. Supporting the Research Enterprise

II. Supporting the Research Enterprise

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.

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III. Art and the Human Experience

III. Art and the Human Experience

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.

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IV. Expanding Access to Higher Education, Humanities, and the Arts

IV. Expanding Access to Higher Education, Humanities, and the Arts

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.

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Presidents of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

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; LiCbrary of Congress. Bottom row: Getty Images/Dora Dalto; Peabody Essex Museum; Jack Mitchell/Getty Images.