The Mellon Foundation Goes Woke
The nation's largest supporter of the humanities has elevated politics over art, and sometimes forsakes the latter altogether.
Not to be outdone by The New York Times‘ 1619 Project, the Mellon Foundation recently announced its appropriation of $250 million for a “Monuments Project: Building the Commemorative Landscape for the 21st Century.” This is said to be the “largest initiative in the foundation’s fifty year history.”
If this allocation were devoted to the creation of new monuments, there could be no objection to it. As Maryland’s Senate President Emeritus, Thomas V. Mike Miller recently observed, we need more monuments, not fewer of them. In an increasingly collectivist age, it is useful for the young to be reminded of the difference individuals can make, and for the middle-aged to be given the hope that their achievements will be indelibly memorialized.
But construction of new monuments is not the focus of this new endeavor. The first grant announced from the $250 million is one of $4 million for a “National Monuments Audit,” to be accompanied by a “concurrent database of reported protest activities tied to monuments.” An additional $1 million is allocated for “ten Monument Lab field offices” that will “re-imagine monuments,” including the “relocation or re-thinking of existing monuments.”
We, the authors, are neighbors in Baltimore. Both our homes face Mt. Vernon Square, where the statue of Judge Roger Taney was removed under the cover of night by a mayor who herself was subsequently removed for corruption, without even consulting the neighbors, leaving an empty plinth. Taney was not even a Confederate and had made a very significant contribution to American jurisprudence, a legacy that is now viewed as controversial because of one decision.
The Mellon Foundation’s project is totalitarian in its proposed scope and radical vision, something utterly in conflict with American pluralism and preference for localism, a brazen effort to wrest control away from communities as to the state of their own public spaces.
The product of centuries of accretion is to be “audited” by teams of activists equipped with a spectacularly large budget for what is euphemistically called “re-location” but which generally means disappearance. It is clear that this sort of activity is what the Mellon grant is designed to support. It was one of five foundations (with total assets of $34 billion) contributing to the disappearance of four monuments in New Orleans. The purpose here, sought to be so systematically advanced, is that anticipated in George Orwell’s 1984, where “every statue or street or building has been re-named.”
We were curious as to what sort of board of directors approved the Mellon project. The president and four of the other eleven other board members are African-American; one of the others is Richard Brodhead, former president of Duke famous for the Duke Lacrosse case. The presidents of three of the four other foundations—the Ford, Rockefeller, and Kellogg Foundations— removing the New Orleans monuments are African-American, as are 5 of 16 directors at Ford, 4 of 16 at Kellogg, and 5 of 13 at Rockefeller. This racial progress should be gratifying, but the demands for understanding on the part of these recruits to the American nomenklatura are directed ever outward, never inward.
Mellon, which bills itself as “the largest supporter of the arts and humanities in the U.S.” at a time when symphony orchestras, museums, and theaters are fighting for survival, has instead turned to a work of destruction.
Like the widely acknowledged need for antitrust action against the outsized influence in ideas of Google, Twitter and Amazon, this bizarre choice is a symptom of a wider problem. When the Rockefeller Foundation applied for a federal charter, it was refused by President Taft’s trust-busting attorney general, George Wickersham, who decried “an indefinite scheme for perpetuating vast wealth… entirely inconsistent with the public interest.” The Rockefeller Foundation and others initially redeemed themselves through support of important medical and scientific research.
As government support expanded, foundation efforts, most notoriously those of the Ford Foundation, then by far the largest, were diverted to the more politically charged social sciences. In the era of McGeorge Bundy, an American grandmaster (along with Justice Frank Murphy and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara) of the art of ‘failing upward,’ Ford sponsored two misbegotten initiatives: New York City regional school boards, designed as a sandbox for rising minority politicians, and endowment of La Raza to organize the previously quiescent Hispanic population. The former gave rise to militant teachers’ unions, the latter to formalized identity politics, as shown in the late Georgie Ann Geyer’s Americans No More.
In its humanities grants, Mellon expressly favors “pursuing social justice through humanities and the arts.” Review of its grants, and those of other foundations, discloses a showering of assistance on minority or disabled theater companies and musical projects, and little aid to institutions catering to general audiences. The ratio of performers to spectators in most of these projects is rather high and there is little effort to bring the classical music and dramatic repertoire to wider audiences. Grantsmanship rather than musicianship or acting talent is the skill incentivized.
This represents a pronounced change of direction from previous Mellon leaderships in what it means to support high culture. In classical music as a notable example, like other major foundations for generations, they were supportive of orchestras and operas in the centrist vision of high culture being available to all, rather than venturing into evaluating the music itself. Deciding what was worth listening to was a robust conversation for everyone in the public square. Now, instead of widening access and literacy of American history and culture, they have set their designs on erasing monuments of great artistic merit that do not fit cosmopolitan elite tastes, relieving our burden to reflect upon them. Conveniently, they have appointed themselves as the ones who will commission new monuments and memorialize those who reflect their ideology.
The co-opting of politically progressive African-Americans onto non-profit boards and into the student bodies and faculties of elite universities is overdone while, as in 1968, huge percentages of African-American young men, for want of better employment opportunities, are relegated to participation in the drug-dealing underworld. Scarcely a dime of the resources of the large foundations is devoted to the promotion of vocational education, but, as a recent study has shown, the leading foundations devoted more than a billion dollars to support of ‘gay rights’ while never agitating for defunding the drug underworld or reviving the Civilian Conservation Corps. Culture war is the chief object.
The most somber prophet of modern totalitarianism, Jacob Burckhardt, wrote that in the wake of the Paris Commune “there are everywhere good, splendid, liberal people who do not quite know the boundaries of right and wrong and where the duty of resistance and defense begins. It is these men who open the doors and level the paths for the terrible masses everywhere.” “A new element has entered politics, a thoroughness that former conquerors knew nothing of, or at least made no conscious use of. They try to humiliate the conquered as deeply as possible in his own eyes, so that in the future he shall not rise again to any self-confidence.”
The last serious examination of the political activities of foundations was the congressional Reece Committee that proposed some restrictions on them, imposed but since diluted, in 1954. There is need for a new and less partisan Reece Committee, from which foundation-aided personnel should be rigorously excluded. The life of foundations should be severely restricted; their heterogeneous donors, though wealthy, are apt to be more diverse, capable, and imaginative than the new class of philanthropoids. Cross-granting should be banned; the wide scattering of largesse in place of a few well-thought-out projects discouraged, and restrictions on political activities tightened. It may even be that the rich should be restricted to giving to established institutions; today’s ‘philanthropoids’ make one think that George Wickersham had it right.
Finally, concerned communities should formally request that they be omitted from Mellon’s audacious audit, lest they have beloved local monuments agitated against by agents provocateurs in New York.
Andrew Balio is the president and founder of the Future Symphony Institute.
George Liebmann, president of the Library Company of the Baltimore Bar, is the author of works on law and history, most recently America’s Political Inventors (Bloomsbury 2019).