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President's Letter

We will not forget the year 2020 and the mark that it made upon our lives.  It was a year that began with a frightening and often mismanaged global pandemic that killed millions, was further shaped by a painful national confrontation on racial violence and injustice, and culminated in an insurrection by white supremacists, with the encouragement of an American president, at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. 

Twenty-twenty challenged our Mellon Foundation community, and held us to account through hundreds of days spent in physical isolation from one another, weeks spent grieving over who and what had been lost, and months spent determined to be as helpful as we could, however we could.  We were challenged to be even more precise and even more persistent in our work, addressing our responsibility as the nation’s largest funder of arts, culture, and the humanities.  That Mellon moved surely and deftly through these challenges was due not to serendipity, but to the institutional analysis in which we already had been engaged, examining and reframing our mission and values within a new strategic direction and rigorously clarifying which problems we were trying to solve with our grantmaking.   

Due to that dedicated process, 2020 was the year when we at Mellon made the shift to assessing all of our work in the arts and humanities through the lens of social justice.  Because our new strategic direction debuted as the interconnected trauma and turbulence of COVID-19 and racial injustice unfolded, this shift proved to be especially potent.  The speed with which our new focus allowed us to address the urgent needs of our grantees meant that, in less than twelve months, the Mellon Foundation made nearly $200 million in emergency grantmaking—in addition to our regular $300 million grant budget—to significantly support a vast range of organizations across the country. 

Through our Arts and Culture program area, this funding sustained grantees such as dance companies that conceptualized innovative “bubble” residencies so that their artists could dance safely together with a mitigated risk of COVID-19, and—under the auspices of our Art Museums Futures Fund—small and midsized museums that had been financially devastated by the pandemic. 

Transformative emergency grantmaking in our Higher Learning program area included a record contribution to the City University of New York for pandemic and racial justice initiatives that will support first-generation and low-income college students who have been working hard to earn an education despite the challenges of the past year. 

And through our Public Knowledge program area, we supported visionary new research endeavors like the Black Teacher Archives—a collaboration among Historically Black Colleges and Universities’ libraries and Harvard and Princeton Universities to archive and analyze the history of African American schoolteachers.  

Centering history and critical knowledge-developing and -sharing in our work distinguished our grantmaking in 2020 and will continue to do so in the years to come.  That is why, last summer, we launched a new program area, Humanities in Place, which will serve as the locus of all our grantmaking that is grounded in storytelling, preservation, and public spaces across the country. 
 

small wooden houseThe childhood home of musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone in Tryon, North Carolina—named a National Treasure by the National Trust in 2018. Photo by Nancy Pierce.

At the same time, our Public Affairs grants supported several organizations that provide vital food security and art therapy services for New Yorkers experiencing hunger or dementia—hardships that worsened in 2020 due to months of economic instability and physical isolation. 

We also issued $300 million in social bonds—unprecedented in Mellon’s history—to further increase our flexibility and support our grantees.  And even as we focused on our own institutional pandemic response, we joined with four philanthropic peers in announcing a collective $1.7 billion commitment to support the United States’ nonprofit ecosystem. 

Our emergency funding affirmed that Mellon’s shift to becoming a problem-solving Foundation has not represented a departure from our earlier work, but instead builds upon our legacy of championing ideas, imagination, and critical thinking, and of supporting the arts, culture, humanities, and higher learning as means of empowerment.  We are both expanding and strengthening that legacy while making Mellon even more relevant to the communities we serve. 

My own presidential grantmaking in 2020 drew upon this dynamic continuum of Mellon’s past, present, and future.  For years the Foundation has supported vital programs in prison higher learning throughout the US.  In 2020, we partnered closely with and committed to an innovative three-year program—the Million Book Project, which will be based at Yale Law School’s Justice Collaboratory.  This initiative is the brainchild of the brilliant poet, lawyer, and scholar Reginald Dwayne Betts, and underscores the potentially liberatory self-knowledge that comes from deep reading.  The Million Book Project will create 500-book “freedom libraries” at 1,000 medium- and maximum-security prisons in all 50 states plus Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico.  Selection of the books, which will include fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, is already underway, with the list of titles expected for announcement later in 2021. 

a reader with hands stretched out holding books in a prison libraryThe Million Book Project, which will be based at Yale Law School’s Justice Collaboratory, is the brainchild of poet, lawyer, and scholar Reginald Dwayne Betts. Photo: Michael Stravato/The New York Times

The significance of the Million Book Project lies not only in its affirmation of the dignity and right to learning of incarcerated people, but also in its recognition of the centrality of history and knowledge to developing critical consciousness of the world in which we live.  Just as the 500-book freedom libraries will lift up the voices of a multiplicity of writers, artists, and scholars—and in so doing, illuminate new narratives and insights for those who read the texts—so, too, are we at the Mellon Foundation aiming to develop critical consciousness by expanding collective knowledge of who and what our historical record holds.

The most ambitious new effort we undertook last year—and the largest prospective commitment in Mellon’s history—was the five-year, $250 million Monuments Project.  This initiative will help us better understand our collective past by supporting the development of commemorative spaces that speak to the full reach of our history, reflect our evolved understanding of those who have been most persistently memorialized, and ensure that future generations inherit monuments that capture the many different transformative contributions of the various peoples and movements that make up the American story. 

Crucially, the Monuments Project will challenge us to ask—and answer—several key questions about how our history is told in public spaces:  How do monuments of the past affect how we see ourselves in the present?  How might depicting our history from new perspectives further racial justice?  How might we correct erroneous mythologies currently propagated in our commemorative landscape?  Initial grants issued under the Monuments Project include those to the CultureTrust Greater Philadelphia in support of the independent design studio Monument Lab, which is conducting an audit of our country’s existing commemorative landscape; to the Social and Public Art Resource Center for its preservation and expansion of the epic historical mural The Great Wall of Los Angeles, which was designed by the artist Judith F. Baca and created through the collective work of painters, LA community members, and hundreds of young people; to US Biennial, Inc. in support of art triennial Prospect New Orleans’s upcoming commemorative projects and programming centered in New Orleans’s Tivoli Circle; and to a series of remarkable augmented reality, artist-designed monuments that explore LA history in partnership with the Los Angeles Museum County of Art and the technology company Snap, Inc.

artist and community co-creators standing before a blue and white mural sketchArtist Judith F. Baca at work on The Great Wall of Los Angeles with community members in 1976. Photo: Social and Public Art Resource Center.

The years I have spent as a poet, scholar, educator, and cultural advocate have led me to believe that we must stand in the understanding that history is crisis and progress laid end to end forever.  In 2020, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery galvanized many Americans into both a critical consciousness of racial injustice and a determination to eradicate it from the United States.  It is imperative, however, for all of us to recognize that anti-Black violence and racial hatred did not commence with the deaths of these three individuals.  As knowledge of our collective history has long shown, these murders exist on a continuum of systems of belief and power that continue to be entrenched in our country. 

The Mellon Foundation kept a steady hand in addressing the widespread turmoil that arose around racial injustice, and in recognizing that an understanding of our current moment depends in part on that knowledge of our collective history.  I have spent my whole life engaging with these issues, and in 2021—and beyond—I will continue to make clear how Mellon’s work in the arts, culture, and humanities resonates with broader justice efforts across the United States.

We also will continue to look to those leaders whose unflinching grasp of the insights that history and knowledge offer serves as ongoing inspiration.  These are the leaders who are not surprised by whatever revelations of crisis and progress our current moment may hold for us.  One of them is Dr. Carla Hayden, our country’s Librarian of Congress, whose institution we at Mellon were thrilled to support last year—through our Public Knowledge program area—with a grant titled Of the People:  Widening the Path.  This initiative will make the Library of Congress’s digital archives more accessible to underresourced communities, and will encourage and support more members of these communities to become librarians and archivists themselves.  These programs further illustrate Dr. Hayden’s firm understanding of the Library of Congress as the people’s library—a public library whose resources are accessible for anyone who wishes to enter its doors—and the institutional evolution she has guided throughout her tenure.  As Mellon’s own institutional evolution remains ongoing, Dr. Hayden is a visionary leader we will continue to learn from.

Looking ahead into the remaining months of 2021, I am energized by the work before us.  We will issue an additional $200 million in emergency grantmaking this year, and we will continue to affirm our new strategic direction with trusted tools and new thinking.  We will keep using our voice to lift up the arts, culture, humanities, and higher learning; we will keep championing ideas, imagination, and critical thinking as vital to our collective recovery from the interconnected crises of COVID-19 and racial injustice.  We will uphold our commitment to centering history and knowledge in all our work, to expanding access to learning and the freedom it grants, and to creating a more just society—both now and in the future. 

My determined hope is that 2021 will be marked increasingly by possibility.  With each day that passes we walk even farther into this new year, tempered by new ways of analyzing, challenging, and understanding one another and the post-pandemic world we now inhabit.  We move forward, as always, strengthened even further by the words and the works of many extraordinary poets, thinkers, teachers, and activists that ask and answer the most precise questions, and bring buried truths to light. 

The poet Muriel Rukeyser fully lived her commitments as a civic participant, and the power of her artistry carries large ideas forward in lucid lines.  Though we are no longer in “the first century of the world wars,” I thought often this past year of Rukeyser’s words and those that followed—their sense of present urgency, and the need for a clear compass to guide unhesitating action.  This is Rukeyser’s “Poem,” from 1968:

Poem

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get pen to paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other.
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.¹

How of this moment this great poem feels!  “The news would pour out of various devices […] / I would call my friends on other devices; / They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.”  The lines could have been written in 2020.  

Through the frightening news, isolation, and despair, Rukeyser writes, “Slowly I would get pen to paper.”  This expressed drive to connect out of solitude, to put one’s self to action for communities near and far—“setting up signals across vast distances”—moves me deeply and calls me to work.  I am proud that in 2020 we at the Mellon Foundation tried “to reach beyond ourselves,” and we will continue to do so moving forward.
 

Elizabeth Alexander 
May 2021

Notes

Top photo:  Djeneba Aduayom

1. From The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005).  Copyright © 2005 by Muriel Rukeyser.  Used by permission of ICM Partners. 

C01AA8F2-C27F-4F64-AD65-A06A41330DF7Created with sketchtool.
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