Five Things to Know About Elizabeth Alexander, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's New President


Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 8, 2018.

Anyone who raises money for the liberal arts on campus or cultural institutions pays laser-like attention to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation—or at least they should. It's the mothership funder in this critical space, with assets of $6.3 billion and annual grantmaking of $300 million a year. Mellon often gives out this money in big chunks, too, and it's well-known for its seven-figure grants—cash that can feel like a windfall from heaven, especially for smaller colleges, given the scarcity of major funders that care about the humanities and related areas. 

But if Mellon is well-known in campus and cultural fundraising circles, it's not so visible beyond these rarified precincts. It's long kept a low profile in ways that have felt like a missed opportunity. A $6 billion foundation can be a powerful platform for influencing public debate, and Mellon's mission feels more urgent than ever, with the liberal arts under siege and growing awareness of how the arts can be used to drive social change.

Now, the foundation has appointed a new president, acclaimed poet Elizabeth Alexander, who seems exceptionally well-suited for the job of maximizing Mellon's potential to more boldly advance its core values—assuming that's what the board truly wants. 

But who is Alexander? Here's a few things to know about her.

1. She Believes Strongly That the Arts and Humanities Can Advance Social Justice

When Alexander's appointment was announced, Ford President Darren Walker sent out an email saying that the choice was "met with a roaring cheer by all of us at the Ford Foundation." Alexander joined Ford in 2015 and has been instrumental in some of the changes at the foundation. As director of the foundation's Creativity and Free Expression program, Alexander designed the Art for Justice initiative with philanthropist Agnes Gund, and shaped Ford's Art of Change fellowships, which recognize individuals "advancing freedom, justice, inclusion, and democracy through art."

In other words, Alexander has been closely involved in one of the most important trends now shaping arts philanthropy: a growing focus on using arts and cultural grantmaking to advance social justice. You can bet that she'll push Mellon to step up its own funding along these lines. It also seems likely that we'll see a more powerful axis between Ford and Mellon that extends the influence of both institutions in the arts and cultural space. In fact, she's already signaled her deep commitment here. Arts and humanities philanthropy can spur "profound systems change" when done right, she told the Chronicle of Philanthropy's Alex Daniels. "What voices haven’t we heard? What brilliance has been marginalized or neglected?" she asked. "Once that’s been identified, we’re sharing it. That’s a social-justice orientation."

2. She's Knows How to Use Her Voice to Be Heard

It's not often that an accomplished creative writer with a seasoned public persona ends up at the top of a major legacy foundation. In fact, this pretty much never happens. But that's the case, here. 

Alexander is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Light of the World, which was a finalist in 2016 for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is also the author of six books of poetry, including American Sublime, a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, and two collections of essays, The Black Interior and Power and Possibility.  

In 2009, Alexander wrote and recited an original poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, becoming the fourth-ever poet to read at a presidential inauguration.

"I am a writer. I use my voice in a public way," Alexander told the Chronicle. "I share my work, and that is a tool I think I can use to advance the work of the foundation."

Of course, the foundation Alexander is heading to is nothing like the one she's coming from. While Ford is often bold and outspoken, unafraid to push the envelope on cultural and social issues—especially under Darren Walker—Mellon  is restrained, measured and classical. It's been a consistent supporter of boosting diversity in higher education and, more recently, the museum management ranks, but Mellon also happily toils in the under-appreciated corners of academia like bibliographical studies.

Presumably, Mellon's board is well aware of what it's signing up for by choosing Alexander as its next president. Still, it wouldn't be surprising if her tenure proved to be a bumpy ride at times, as the foundation adjusts its DNA.   

3. She'll Be a Bullhorn for the Liberal Arts

As the STEM craze engulfed the higher ed philanthropy world, it seemed as if Mellon, ever the classicist, stood as a lone voice in the wilderness in its defense of a liberal arts education. Now, that voice is likely to be amplified. "I think Mellon already considers itself to be the leader in this regard,"  Alexander told the Chronicle of Higher Education's Adam Harris. "And so, from that position, what that means is that the responsibility is not just about where the dollars go, but it’s also about convening power. It’s about—I won’t call it moral authority—but being in a position where you can bring folks together, and not only pool their resources, but to pool their brainpower."

Indeed, despite several high profile gifts to the humanities over the past six months, including Bill Miller's $75 million donation to Johns Hopkins University's philosophy department, Alexander argues that liberal arts proponents aren't out of the woods just yet.

Alexander told Alex Daniels that colleges and universities are "under siege," citing statistics compiled by the Pew Research Center in July showing that 58 percent of Republicans felt higher education was having a negative impact on the country.

"The value of free expression, of arts and culture, is not something that’s always shouted from the rooftops, right now," she said.

4. She's Spent Years Inside of Academia

Alexander knows the academic scene firsthand. She spent 15 years at Yale University, holding several appointments, including as the Thomas E. Donnelly Professor of African American Studies and as chair of the African American Studies Department. Prior to those appointments, she was a professor in the departments of African American Studies, American Studies and English.

5. Alexander Doesn't Envision Any "Immediate" Changes (the Key Word Being "Immediate")

Alexander told the Chronicle of Philanthropy that she doesn't "envision making any immediate changes" to Mellon’s grantmaking strategy. That said, given the state of affairs across the arts philanthropy world and Alexander's professional background, it's fairly reasonable to expect her to steer Mellon in a more socially activist direction.

Activist art remains the hottest issue in the arts philanthropy space, and Mellon has been leaning in that direction in recent months.

For example, it recently awarded $750,000 to the Minneapolis Institute of Art to establish a Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts with the goal of working with researchers, scholars and artists to explore ways the visual arts can foster empathy and compassion to "affect positive social change."