Strange Bedfellows? Ford and Walton Join Forces on Arts Diversity


When the Ford Foundation recently announced it was committing $3 million over three years to "support creative solutions" to diversify curatorial and management staff at art museums across the United States, I wasn't surprised. That sounds like just another day at the office at Ford, where arts grantmaking is entwined with the foundation's larger goal of reducing inequality. 

I was, surprised, however, to learn that the Walton Family Foundation also chipped in $3 million

After all, the Walton Family Foundation's arts giving is inextricably linked with its namesake's brand. Just as one associates "low prices" and "easy shopping" with the Bentonville-based retail behemoth, the Walton family's arts giving can seem at first glance to be quite conservative, focusing on the promotion of American art. On the other hand, as we've been reporting, this giving has been evolving rapidly in the past few years. You never quite know what's coming next.

Through the Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative, the two foundations will support ways to boost diversity across the field by funding 20 programs at museums across the country. Strategies include hiring professionals from underrepresented populations and offering fellowships, mentorships and other career development options to this untapped demographic.

This gift didn't materialize out of the ether, so I think it's important to step back and frame it in a larger philanthropic context.

Diversity Equals Engagement

The initiative represents the latest development in a visual arts world where funders demand greater engagement, particularly across historically underrepresented demographics. When tackling this topic in greater detail earlier this year, I mentioned three funders in particular who contend that a diverse leadership fosters greater engagement among diverse audiences.

The Joyce Foundation, for one, supports "cultural institutions with concrete, measurable plans to substantially increase the participation of people of color through systematic analysis, interventions and long-term change." 

Ford, not surprisingly, also aims to build more "equitable leadership and staff" at arts institutions and to create "more opportunities for audiences to engage with social justice art and media."

Most recently, Ford funded the research for a cultural plan to gauge the diversity of New York City's cultural institutions. The plan is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio's larger effort to dole out public funding based on the respective diversity of recipient organizations.

"To fulfill your mission, you’ve got to be credible," Ford's Darren Walker said, "and in order to be credible, the community needs to see themselves represented among you."

But is that really true? As opponents of the cultural plan noted, most of New York's "legacy" institutions, despite the ethnic composition of staff, offer incredibly broad and innovative programming geared towards diverse audiences.

For example, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts launched a new pilot program that "encourages innovative strategies to catalyze greater access to, and participation in, cultural opportunities in the diverse neighborhoods of Central Brooklyn and the South Bronx."

The center's board is mostly white. Does it lack credibility?

That's (perhaps) a discussion for another time, but I've provided a brief peek into the rabbit hole to show that the issues at play here can be tricky and controversial. 

Mellon Leads the Way

Which brings me to the third foundation active in this space, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

We've been following Mellon's work in the curatorial diversity field since 2014. Has Mellon been a lonely voice in the wilderness? Not exactly. But it was one of the few major foundations enthusiastically and relentlessly committed to this issue. 

Not only did Mellon cut checks to boost diversity, it also funded research to underscore the yawning gaps at major arts institutions. Funders took Mellon's data and ran with it. The Barnes Foundation, for example, pointed to the research when announcing plans to work with the Chester County, Pennsylvania-based Lincoln University to prepare African American students for careers in the museum professions.

Not surprisingly, Ford also cited Mellon's survey in its press release announcing the Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative.

The initiative is also Mellon-like in that stakeholders will measure progress to track "long-term benefits for the participating museums and the field as a whole." The outcomes will be shared with the larger field, echoing Mellon's work from earlier this year, in which it partnered with AAMD and research firm Ithaka S+R to create a series of case studies designed to "guide museum leadership teams in creating successful, forward-thinking plans to improve diversity and inclusivity in their staffing practices."

Let us now step back and summarize.

Funders are increasingly following Mellon's lead by supporting initiatives that boost curatorial diversity to drive engagement across diverse audiences. No surprise there. A recent entrant to the field is Ford, the anti-inequality crusader. Again, no surprise. And the other new entrant joining forces with Ford is... the Walton Family Foundation?

The Alice (Walton) Factor

Why is the Walton Family Foundation partnering with the firebrands at the Ford Foundation?  

Well, let's take a closer look at the the press release.

"For museums to be truly inviting public spaces, they must better reflect the communities they serve. Achieving diversity requires a deeper commitment: to hire and nurture leaders from all backgrounds. This initiative creates the opportunity for museums to build a more inclusive culture within their institutions," said a rep from the foundation. 

Normally, a quote of this nature would come from the board chair. In the Walton Family Foundation's case, that would be Carrie Walton Penner. But the above quote came from board member Alice Walton.

Now it all makes sense.

Walton is a huge proponent of curatorial diversity and community engagement, and has been leading by example via her Crystal Bridges Museum of Art since its inception. In 2015, it launched its Access and Inclusive Programs Department to work with partners who have deep relationships in the community. It also expanded the role of Executive Director Rod Bigelow to include chief diversity and inclusion officer.

And earlier this year, when announcing plans to expand access through museum-wide diversity and inclusion initiatives, the museum's press release cites—you guessed it—data from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Add it all up, and the Walton Family Foundation's unlikely partnership with the left-leaning Ford Foundation isn't a bizarre philanthropic outlier as much as brand "enhancement" wrought by a board member-cum-soothsayer who also happens to be "America's Most Important Arts Philanthropist."