Mellon at 50: Arts, Humanities, Higher Education, and Just Societies

panel speakers on stage Mellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander; SPARC Founder Judith F. Baca; African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund Executive Director Brent Leggs; and MASS Design Group Founding Principal and Executive Director Michael Murphy.

On Monday, November 18, renowned scholars, museum directors, educators, artists, and influencers in the arts, humanities, and higher education gathered for a symposium celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The symposium, held at the New-York Historical Society, began with a welcome by Mellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander.

“If we believe in the pursuit of truth and justice, then we must seize every opportunity—especially opportunities like today, moments of significance in one or more histories—to shift the telling, shift the focus, and, in turn, shift the cultural narrative towards fuller histories, plural.”

The morning’s first panel considered the present and future ecology of museums, their purpose, what legacies they preserve, and the impact of constantly shifting technology on institutions and the people they serve. Throughout the day, those issues broadly underpinned subsequent panels and lively debates on pressing questions, such as: whether institutions of higher learning are serving a diverse student body; the vital role that humanists can play in the digital information age; the tension between art and activism; how historic preservation can respond to social crises; and why, as panelist Sherrilyn Ifill said, “this is the moment for the arts.”

panelists and guests back stageMellon Foundation Pres. Elizabeth Alexander; Ford Foundation Pres. Darren Walker; Race Card Project Dir. Michele Norris; NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Pres. and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill; Studio Museum in Harlem Dir. Thelma Golden.

Among the countless memorable quotes from throughout the day:

“A poet’s job is to bear witness...to offer language...to help us understand what we are living through.”
— Elizabeth Alexander, president, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

speaker at podiumMellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander.

“We don’t just have history for the sake of history; we have it to inform the future.”
—Michael Govan, director, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

“Universities should model the kind of discourse we want to hear in public space.”
—Ruth Simmons, president, Prairie View A&M University

“People in prison and those who have been incarcerated are people—deep, complex, and full of promise, if given the right opportunities at the right time.”
—Rebecca Ginsburg, director, Education Justice Project, University of Illinois

panel speakers on stageMellon Foundation Senior Program Officer Armando Bengochea; Georgia State Univ. President Mark Becker; Education Justice Project Director Rebecca Ginsburg; Northwestern Univ. Provost Jonathan Holloway; and Prairie View A&M Univ. President Ruth Simmons.

“We can try to fend off the rise of [Artificial Intelligence] as a threat...but we as humanists should be investing in leadership around platforms, how they’re designed and used.”
—Sylvester Johnson, founding director, Virginia Tech Center for Humanities

“This is the moment for the arts. It’s not the job of politics or the law to do it all...to get us to the place we want to get to.”
—Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

panel speakers on stagePoet and Arizona State University Professor Natalie Diaz and New York Live Arts Artistic Director Bill T. Jones.

“Art should be dangerous and art should not be easy to control.”
—Bill T. Jones, artistic director, New York Live Arts

“Language...is something moving through me. Something I can’t hold still or static. We are in a state where speaking your language is activism.”
—Natalie Diaz, Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry, Arizona State University

“Being in a place, standing on the land, is a spiritual act in which you begin to form a relationship with the very molecular structure of the place.”
—Judith F. Baca, founder, Social and Public Art Resource Center

"I would like us to see the built environment as a public resource…in acts of ritualized participation, we rebuild an American identity that we share.”
—Michael Murphy, founding principal and executive director, MASS Design Group

symposium participantsMellon Foundation Board Chair Emerita Hanna Gray; Executive Vice President, Chief Operating Officer, General Counsel, and Secretary Michele S. Warman; and Board Chair Emerita Anne Tatlock.

Full symposium program details can be found here.

All photographs are by Simon Luethi.