You Say You Want an Evolution: The Ford Foundation's "Art of Change"

Back in September 2014, my colleague David Callahan wrote a piece addressing Ford Foundation President Darren Walker's plans to shake up the philanthropic leviathan he leads.

Callahan's post, whose title sounds like some obscure Pink Floyd B-side, was titled "Hey, Darren: Swing That Ax Hard at Ford's Bloat," and his argument was simple. Ford tries to do too much. It should cut back, streamline its range of work, and give bigger grants to fewer organizations. 

Over the past seven months, we've been reading the tea leaves to see how things actually play out at the foundation. So naturally, we were intrigued when Ford recently unveiled a sprawling new effort dubbed "The Art of Change," which is "centered on the roles art and culture play in illuminating and addressing urgent issues of equity, opportunity, and justice in the US and around the globe."

Now, before we take a closer look at "The Art of Change," I'd like to first briefly loop back to the big organizational issues that Ford is grappling with. 

In an email to grantees last year, Walker noted that the foundation's revamping would identify "four to six key themes that speak to the social justice issues of our era—themes which will organize our grantmaking during the years ahead." Grantees everywhere began sweating profusely, and rightfully so. Despite Walker's claim that he envisioned more of an "evolution," as opposed to a "revolution," he noted that some grantees would inevitably lose funding.

In short, Walker subtly acknowledged Ford had a problem on its hands—namely the foundation's massive sprawl. But just how tumultuous would any streamlining be as the Walker evolution moved forward?  

Judging by "The Art of Change," the preliminary answer seems to be "not very."

The initiative "reaffirms the central importance of creativity and cultural expression to healthy societies at a time when they are increasingly under threat." Practically speaking, over the next 12 months, the foundation will bring together leading thinkers, artists, cultural leaders, and activists from around the world for a series of "provocative conversations to better understand the interplay of art, creativity, equality, and justice."

To that end, the foundation is awarding a series of fellowships to 13 artists and cultural leaders, each distinguished in their field, whose work touches on issues of equity and justice. Fellows include Robert Battle, artistic director, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; Joy Mboya, executive director of the GoDown Arts Centre in Nairobi, Kenya; and Albie Sachs, the activist, jurist, and author from Johannesburg, South Africa.

The goal, of course, is noble, and the list of fellows is rather impressive. Grantees take note: We can only deduce that the overarching concept that freedom of expression is under threat maps to Walker's aim of addressing pressing "social justice issues of our era" as part of the foundation's evolution. So we'll give him points for "issue clarification" and perhaps even consolidation.

Another thing about this initiative: It's clearly being cast more as an exploration than as any sort of answer derived from a strategic planning process. The initiative will help determine how the foundation "can most effectively advance the arts—and by, extension, drive social change—in an increasingly diverse and evolving world."

Of course, none of this means that Walker and company won't, at some point, drastically streamline the foundation's work or cut some grantees loose. It could very well happen. But judging by the "The Art of Change," it looks like Walker's ax remains safely tucked away in the foundation's toolshed. For now, anyway.