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Truth’s Foundations

Original illustration by Ayca Tuzer ’24, an Illustration major at RISD
Original illustration by Ayca Tuzer ’24, an Illustration major at RISD

Since its founding in 1969, the Mellon Foundation has grown to be a premier financier of the arts and humanities, awarding over 16,700 grants totaling $7.91 billion. Like many institutions in 2020, the Mellon Foundation underwent a profound change in the wake of the nation’s socio-political turmoil. With a new focus on social equality and building “just communities,” the Foundation is attempting to demonstrate its dedication to racial justice not only by the grants it awards but also by the physical American landscape it creates. In 2020, it launched the Monuments Project, a $250 million, five-year commitment to creating monuments that represent the “powerful multiplicity of American stories.” 

The Monuments Project is the physical manifestation of the Mellon Foundation’s ever-expanding hold on American heritage and knowledge creation. Even though the current president Elizabeth Alexander asserts that the foundation itself will not design the monuments, it still exerts control over the monumental landscape by deciding which parties will receive the funding necessary for construction. Furthermore, the Mellon Foundation extends its reach beyond the physical sphere to the intellectual one, donating millions of dollars to community archives, heritage resource centers, and museums. Now the Foundation finds itself in a critical position with the opportunity to change historical memory. This is a position that no foundation should occupy. The power to create and decide truth is dangerous when no guardrails exist to check one ambitious institution’s will.

The Mellon Foundation’s most recent annual report contains two clear and compelling trends. First, an overwhelming percentage of all donations are awarded to nonprofits that already cast long shadows of influence. Of the $170,701,000 in grant money dispensed through the Foundation’s Presidential Initiative, 67.4 percent (amounting to $115,000,000) went to the Tides Center, a nonprofit that had a total revenue of $268,746,677 in 2020. Similarly, $4,538,000 was awarded to the Trust for the National Mall. 

The Foundation also provides gifts to large nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations at a smaller scale, with the odd $150,000 being donated to the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Inc. to help “support research on Black trustees at US art museums.” Although meager in comparison to the total outlay of billions, this sum is still indicative of money circulating between influential nonprofit organizations. Rather than committing itself to multivocality by prioritizing investments in grassroots foundations closely tied to the audience they serve, the Mellon Foundation continues to support pre-established avenues of economic power—even as it labels itself an advocate of systemic change. 

Second, the Mellon Foundation appears to be aware of its tendency to prioritize financially privileged (and largely white) institutions and seems to be trying to rectify this fact. Since 2021, it has increasingly focused on supporting BIPOC artists: Whereas in 2018 only $300,000 was donated to an organization centering Asian American and Pacific Islander communities (a single donation to the Asian Cultural Council, Inc.), around $1.75 million was donated to various organizations in 2021. It has also provided a spotlight on Black and Brown organizers, with African American and Latino artists surging to prominence in the fiscal profile of the annual report. In comparison, the 2018 report saw a majority of funds in the then-called Arts & Cultural Heritage program apportioned to prominent museums (such as the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University, which was awarded $5.5 million) and art galleries (such as the Art Institute of Chicago, which was awarded just over $1 million). It seems that as a whole, the Mellon Foundation has put its money where its mouth is with regard to racial equity in the arts and humanities.

Regardless of how it chooses to wield its power, the story of the Mellon Foundation’s immense impact is a familiar one. One can’t help but think of the Rockefellers and Carnegies when discussing philanthropy, as well as their outsized influence on intellectual inquiry in the United States. Both families accumulated vast wealth via dubious means—after all, just as John D. Rockefeller exploited wage-laborers in his oil refineries, Andrew Mellon leveraged his political power to protect his various monopolies. Moreover, both families relied on private philanthropy to rehabilitate their foundations’ images. For example, the fact that the Rockefeller Foundation dabbled in eugenics in the 1930s as means of “solving” overpopulation has largely been overshadowed by its current projects targeting health inequities. It could be said that the Mellon Foundation benefits from a similar grant-induced amnesia. 

As the Foundation’s economic power continues to grow, it must be careful to avoid following the path of its predecessors by throwing around its weight in the name of good publicity. Instead, it must make lasting connections to the communities it hopes to serve. To do so, it must be held accountable for its previous shortcomings, as well as for the harm produced by the man who recklessly paved the way for its rise to prestige. 

With this in mind, the Mellon Foundation finds itself at a crossroads: Should it continue its expansion into cultural heritage or step back from the industry altogether? The answer may be neither. There exists a careful balance between the heritage resource managers, who assemble community archives or engage in historical research, and the institutions that fund them. This divide often encourages small organizations to pursue projects that they know will appeal to the grant-giving institutions they rely on. By diverting some of its funds to allow smaller nonprofits to create their own grant programs, the Mellon Foundation would better diversify the intellectual landscape as well as mitigate its own potential for dominating the nonprofit sector. But even if this diversification comes to pass, we must remain cautious of allowing any one institution to hold so much influence over the production of knowledge.