Transcript: Race in America: The Arts

Emilee Geist

MS. ALEXANDER: Hello. I’m so happy to be talking with you today. MR. CAPEHART: Well, this is especially a great day to be having this long-scheduled conversation because of what your foundation announced today. It is an unprecedent, quarter-of-a-billion-dollar grant commitment called The Monuments Project. Talk about it. MS. ALEXANDER: […]

MS. ALEXANDER: Hello. I’m so happy to be talking with you today.

MR. CAPEHART: Well, this is especially a great day to be having this long-scheduled conversation because of what your foundation announced today. It is an unprecedent, quarter-of-a-billion-dollar grant commitment called The Monuments Project. Talk about it.

MS. ALEXANDER: We believe, you know, for the longest time in the Mellon Foundation’s history, we are about learning, knowledge, higher education, the power of arts and culture, and what it means to tell the stories of who we are. We’ve turned our direction to social justice, and when we did that it sharpened our view of the commemorative landscape, especially in the United States, although we’ve been learning from commemorative landscapes all around the world.

How do we tell a story of who we are? How do we tell our history? How has our history been distorted, mis-told? How have some of the monuments in our public spaces taught us, instructed us that some people are superior and some people are not even human? And most importantly, what is the extraordinary possibility that’s out there when you think about all of the multiplicity of American stories that can be told in public space to do the teaching work that we believe monuments do.

So, this Monuments Project is the biggest initiative that Mellon has ever put forward. It has three aspects to it. We are going to be edifying, that is to say, adding, building, contributing to the landscape in the grantees we support, we will think about how some monuments can be recontextualized to become teaching sites, and we will be thinking about the question of relocation. And we are exhilarated.

MR. CAPEHART: All right. So you have given a lot there, but in terms of that part you talked about, the recontextualization, you know, most of us here in Washington, we drive by, or in my case, walk by, almost on a daily basis just for my mental sanity, getting out and getting exercise, but I go down to the National Mall, to the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial. And, you know, these are structures, particularly Jefferson and Washington, that, you know, honor the legacy of our Founding Fathers, but they were also slave owners.

So, I’m wondering, how do you construct context around these iconic spaces to accurately reflect our entire history?

MS. ALEXANDER: Well, I think that when you think about the Mall, in particular–and I grew up in Washington, D.C. in those same sites–the first question that we might ask is we might think about the immovable monumentality of some of those figures, in a way that, you know, it’s important but it also exaggerates the single male figure as being the person who defines and creates history. We believe that history is created from the ground up. We believe that history is made by many people. And we believe that the sole figure doesn’t always tell the story.

Then if you go on the Mall further from those figures you might come upon Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and I think that’s a really interesting and important moment in the evolution of monuments. There is no figure. There is not height but rather you go into the ground. There is a slash in the ground that is made by that monument that acknowledges the grief and complexity and sorrow and loss, not only of the Vietnam War but of war, in general. But then you have those 10,000 names. You have those human beings who were lost, who can be both collectively honored as people who did fight for their country, but also the site is where people can go for their individual loved ones. They can go to grieve and mourn.

So, there is a complexity there that I think is a step forward from what we have in some of those enormous monuments. When you go through the FDR Memorial, as well, you have many, many representations, not just of the man himself but of the things and the people, the ways he tried to make life better for Americans and the way he visioned America in the world. Walking through that monument gives you a more complex picture.

I think that what is even more important is to go, for example, to Lincoln Park–I will keep us in Washington–and to look at the sculpture of Mary McLeod Bethune, the great Black educator, children with her, the future who she educated, looking across the park to a controversial statue of Abraham Lincoln freeing a kneeling slave, which some are uncomfortable with, but I think if you historicize that–so I think there should be some more language, markers, experience in that park–you would know that Frederick Douglass gave a very important speech when that monument was dedicated, that had a critique of Lincoln in it.

So, I feel like if you can bring up, if you will, that historical moment, and if you can understand that Mary McLeod Bethune and those children are looking across at Lincoln, are in conversation, that’s one way that we can think about the enrichment that can happen in monument space.

MR. CAPEHART: So, Elizabeth, can we talk more about this contextualization and adding these markers. I mean, what does that actually look like? And then I want to talk more about the conversation about removal, or moving monuments. But when you talk about immovable monuments, like Washington, like Jefferson Memorials, how do you contextualize those monuments in a way that people actually see it?

MS. ALEXANDER: Many, many different ways, and this is where we turn to our historians, we turn to our public art people, we turn to our performers and artists of different kinds. For example, there was a statue of J. Marion Sims in New York City, on one of the sides of Central Park, who was known by some as the “Father of Gynecology,” but also was someone who made his name and did his work by doing horrible, unethical, violating, gynecological experiments without anesthesia on enslaved women, who he believed to be subhuman.

That was in East Harlem, that statue, and the community of color–it didn’t have to be a community of color, but they said, like, “Wait a second. Why are we living with this? When we walk by with our children and they point up, as children do, and say, ‘Who is that?’ this is not a story that we want to tell. This is not what we venerate.”

So, the city eventually removed the statue, but before that what was fascinating was a group of performance artists came and put on very powerful performance over the course of many days that dramatized the fullness of the story of J. Marion Sims.

So sometimes you have revisions that are ephemeral. Enrichment on Monument Avenue, the statue of Robert E. Lee–

MR. CAPEHART: I was about to ask you about that. Go on.

MS. ALEXANDER: I love that one, and there is an artist who is doing video projections onto the statue. They are very eerily beautiful when photographed. And so, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Nelson Mandela–those people superimposed in color on Robert E. Lee. So, there is a simultaneity that says we can hold more than one history at the same time, and we don’t ever want you to look at Robert E. Lee and think of him as a great man because of his stature in the statue, right? You know, this was someone who was a white supremacist, and that ideology of white supremacy continues to be taught in too many of our commemorative spaces.

So, while this project is really about, again, edifying and all of the stories that there are to tell, it is important to acknowledge that there is a teaching function that is dehumanizing, that is disproportionate in this country, and that’s part of what we’re addressing as well.

MR. CAPEHART: Okay. So now let’s talk about the other thing that you talked about in explaining the Monuments Project, and that is the question of removal. I mean, that has been extremely controversial. One of the reasons why Charlottesville happened was because, you know, white supremacists didn’t like the fact that Robert E. Lee’s statue was going to be removed. Mitch Landrieu, when he was mayor of New Orleans, caught all sorts of hell for removing confederate statues in New Orleans.

Talk about–I mean, address the people who see what’s going on and they don’t like the fact that statues are being removed. Why should they be removed?

MS. ALEXANDER: Well, I think one thing I wanted to say clearly at first is that the Mellon Foundation, we are not removing statues. The way that we do our work is that people come to us, communities come to us, artists come to us, projects come to us, and then we would evaluate whether or not we were going to support that project.

But I would ask people to pause for a moment and learn the history of those they venerate and cling to, because I think that when you really learn that history, when you learn, for example, let’s take Stone Mountain in Georgia, the biggest bas relief sculpture in the world and also a confederate monument with a park underneath, where lots and lots of people live and recreate. That mountain was owned by a member of the Klan. One of the artists who made the bas relief was a member of the Klan. The Klan re-instantiated itself on that site. They had their revels and spectacles and cross-burnings atop that mountain, terrorizing the community beneath. And those confederate heroes, the process was begun in 1915.

So, I think that that which masquerades as history must be understood as a re-instantiation of values, after the war was lost, decades after the war was lost.

So, you know, the history as such, to ask people why is that what you cling to, and I think also to offer people other stories of freedom fighters and visionaries, you know, to think of, you know, you want a Civil War hero? Let’s look at Harriet Tubman.

MR. CAPEHART: Yeah, exactly.

MS. ALEXANDER: Let’s think about what it took to make those 19 journeys, under what circumstances, to free people, to make America a better place. I think that anybody can believe in that.

So, I think there is a lot of education to do, and I think that also I would ask people this idea of kind of who we identify with. Why is Robert E. Lee–you know, there are dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens of Robert E. Lee statues, stained glass windows, schools–

MS. ALEXANDER: –plaques, roads, in places where Robert E. Lee never was. And again, I will remind us he was not the victor.

So, all of these people who cling to that statue, why is he yours? He’s not your grandfather. Why is he yours? And I think that it’s that hard work of asking why we cling to ideologies that teach us that some people are subhuman and others are superior, that’s the question. We’ve got to call that question.

MR. CAPEHART: You know, I want to make sure people heard what you said, and that is it’s not that the Mellon Foundation is going to go running around the country looking at monuments and statues and saying, you know, that’s going to be removed, that’s going to be recontextualized. The program is communities and institutions come to Mellon Foundation, apply for a grant, and you evaluate. It is a community-based decision that would be made, in terms of sending a request for proposal to Mellon for removal or contextualization.

MS. ALEXANDER: Yeah, and even to make it a little bit more precise, I mean, we have amazing program officers who are engaged all the time with artists, cultural organizations, with departments of cultural affairs. So that’s how we do our work in knowing what’s going on. But thank you, yes, for making that distinction that we are not out there with our bare hands.

MR. CAPEHART: Right. Let me go to an audience question that is sort of on this but will move us into another part of this conversation, and it comes from Erik Eckilsen from Vermont. What are some art institutions in the U.S. that are doing innovative things to combat racism through museum and gallery exhibitions?

MS. ALEXANDER: That’s a super question and it’s one that, you know, because Mellon is the nation’s largest funder in arts and culture, and because we’ve been committed to museums for a very long time, we’ve been thinking about a lot. Before I name a few what I’d rather start with is what are some of the things, in general, that museums can do and are doing.

The whole question of who is at the table and who is on the walls, those questions are very, very much related. So, we did a study a few years ago looking at museum diversity across the board of different positions in art museums, and it was not of staff and it was not at all where it needed to be. And one of the problems, when you don’t have a staff that’s diverse in all kinds of ways is that when you come to controversial moments, controversial choices, we are in a very, very, very fraught time, you don’t have a range of perspectives at the table to say, “Well, actually, this is how I see it,” or “This is how I might feel when I see what’s not on the walls,” or “This is how we might address our history.” I think that the museums that are not only looking forward in their programming but also saying, let’s address our history of exclusion, let’s look at our collection and see what’s not in there with artists of color and not merely acquire the work of–I mean, there are many amazing, amazing artists of color who are making work today, but there have been, for decades and decades and decades and decades, but that collecting hasn’t happened to the extent that it should in a lot of museums.

So, I think that, again, answering the question generally, what we’re seeing is more of a deep understanding by museums that they have civic responsibilities, that they are public spaces, that they must speak to the public, in addition to the responsibility for museums that are collecting institutions to keep things safe. You know, they can’t become mausoleums. They have to understand that they have a public .

MR. CAPEHART: You know, Elizabeth, as I was listening to you I was reminded of a study that was done, I can’t remember if it was this year or last year–time has become so elastic these days–but it was sort of a study of these institutions that are viewed as liberal/woke, but they don’t reflect the values that they purport to stand by and champion. And so, the idea that there are museums and art galleries that are supposed to be forward-looking but instead when you peek behind the curtain and take a look and see, well, who is actually, as you say, at the table, the table isn’t very diverse in terms of color. It might be diverse in terms of gender but certainly not in terms of color.

How much more work does the arts community, museums, foundations have to do to catch up with where society actually is?

MS. ALEXANDER: Well, a lot, and I’m glad that you expanded it beyond museums, because I come from the world–two worlds, well, many worlds, but the world of publishing and poetry and the world of academia. When you look at, for example, who are university presidents of some of our great higher learning institutions it is overwhelmingly white men. We have not made substantial progress at all, actually, in the provostial and presidential leadership. A little bit of progress but nothing when you look at what the population not only of the country is but also of these schools are.

And to me, you know, it is about diversity of experience but it’s also about diversity of training, thinking, ideology, fields of study. You know, for the academy to really understand that interdisciplinarity, the complexity of being able to think about more than one field of study at the same time in the way that African American studies, Asian American studies, ethnic studies asks that you think about the mainstream and then how other voices have always intersected, with the understanding that you don’t always have all voices at the table, that develops a kind of critical thinking that is crucial, that I would like to see more of in the world of academia.

In publishing there have been a number of wonderful things lately. Lisa Lucas and Dana Canedy, some really, really brilliant black women who have been brought into very big positions in publishing. So that is wonderful, but I’m interested in progress over time. And also, the point is that this is a nation that is made of multiple voices, experiences, histories, and perspectives. So, we handicap ourselves when we don’t have that multiplicity in our thinking, in our learning, and in the culture that we put out.

MR. CAPEHART: Let’s go back to something you said early, at the start of the conversation, where you mentioned that Andrew Mellon–your foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, has moved into social justice. Explain what that means from your perspective–and it triggered–not triggered me but it clicked something in my head because our friend, Darren Walker, who is the president of the Ford Foundation, maybe a year or two ago, did the same thing, shifted the focus of Ford to view things through a social justice lens. Why did you feel it was important for Mellon to go in the same direction?

MS. ALEXANDER: Well, I think where are we right now? We are living in a society with tremendous inequality. It is absolutely inescapable. It is unavoidable. That is a way that I have understood this country my entire life, through the lens of the bounty that is our cultural heritage but also at the fundamental imbalance of the distribution of resources and power in the society. And I’m fascinated with the ingenious ways that people who aren’t afforded certain resources have nonetheless found a way to shape, fundamentally shape and color our society.

So, it’s a longstanding perspective. It’s a longstanding analysis. And then coming to a position where, at Mellon, we are responsible for truly extraordinary financial resources, it’s an ethical question. How can you give away money without an understanding of imbalance and inequality, and that money, that those resources are meant to be used to better the whole rather than parts?

Now that doesn’t mean that we have enough resources to, you know, give everybody a dollar, but what it does mean is that we are, with every penny we spend, we are asking, does it contribute to a more fair and just society? If we believe in the power of higher education to transform lives, which we do–we believe that deeply–then, to me, the social justice question is, well, all right then, we’re going to fund higher education at public universities, and in prisons as well, because we feel that the beauty of a higher education and critical thinking shouldn’t be confined to elite and wealthy institutions. We’ve got to broaden it. We’ve got to help offer people the tools to change their lives and to come, you know, in thinking about being the leading funder in prison higher education, you know, how important is it for those folks to use their time as learning time so that when they come out they are in a better position to be able to rebuild their lives and be productive and welcomed members of their communities.

MR. CAPEHART: So, Elizabeth, as you were talking, I’m sitting here thinking, well, wait. You’re the president of the foundation, but you have a board. And I’m wondering, you know, how does your board feel about this shift to social justice, and, you know, how do your donors and other folks feel about this shift? Are they all on board? Did it take a lot of convincing to make this shift?

MS. ALEXANDER: Well, I’ve been president for a little bit over two years, and when I was in the process of interviewing, I was very clear that this was the shift that I thought needed to be made in the foundation. And if that wasn’t in alignment with the direction that the board wanted the foundation to go then we part as friends.

But it wasn’t. My amazing board was very excited by this. And then as we got to know each other, once I began doing the work, what does that look like? Because, you know, social justice is sort of a buzz phrase, and people sometimes think it means this thing or it means that thing. But what is the really hopefully very rich and sophisticated way that we are going to interpret that, again, with every grant, and also with how we run the foundation itself?

So, I feel tremendously supported by the board. We have our own endowment so we’re not trying to pull in other money. But we have done lots of different partnerships, because some of the things–and this will be true of Monuments as well–some of these projects cannot be funded by one person alone. They are of vast scale.

So, for example, our support for one of our favorite grantees, the Equal Justice Initiative, the Memorial for Peace and Justice, both when I was at the Ford Foundation and also at Mellon, this was something that we supported in a very big way. But you don’t build that thing by yourself.

And the thinking behind, and why I think that it’s actually a perfect example to pull together everything we’ve been discussing, what Bryan Stevenson understands there and why it was such an emblematic grant for us, is that he starts with advocacy. He starts with helping people, people who have been disadvantaged in the society, who need legal representation. They have a history aspect. They are always doing research and disseminating research that helps us understand the history of racial violence in this country. Then that research goes to the extraordinary process by which they are marking spaces where racial violence took place.

So, you can be driving along the Jefferson Davis Highway from Montgomery to Selma, you know, named for Jefferson Davis, and EJI has said working with community, working with descendants, a lynching took place here, along this road. This is the name of the person. This is the story of the person. We are going to dig soil, we are going to mark where it happened, and we are going to put the soil in a jar, and put the person’s name, and bring it back and display it in the museum along with hundreds and hundreds of others, to tell the story that’s literally been buried beneath the ground.

And then when you move from the incredible teaching of that museum to the cathedral of commemoration and grief and the challenge that the memorial makes, it’s a very active memorial. And when you go in and see those slabs, there are no figures but again, like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, there are counties, there are names. We are counted. We are remembered. But then communities are challenged to say, will you bring your replica of the slab into the place where it happened, and will you reckon? Will you reckon? And I think that that, you know, call to reckoning is what the commemorative landscape can do.

MR. CAPEHART: I talked to Bryan Stevenson last week about race in America. We talked a lot about the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and if you have not visited it in Montgomery, Alabama, it has made Montgomery a destination. It is such a powerful memorial.

Elizabeth, we are over time but I want to end by asking you for just your view of where we are as a country right now. After the murder of George Floyd, you wrote a piece in The New Yorker about raising your black sons. And we don’t have enough time to get into everything, but just putting that there as a marker should tell the viewer where this question is going.

This is a fraught time in this country, with 29 or so days to go in the election. What makes you hopeful, if at all, about this moment that we’re in, in America?

MS. ALEXANDER: Several things make me hopeful, though I think we are in a tremendously fraught moment. Young people, and in that piece, you mentioned the Trayvon generation, I said that as we listen to them, we also have to love them and understand that they have grown up exposed to a tremendous amount of racial violence, that they’ve witnessed in replication on their telephones. So, we have to listen to our young people, and I am hopeful that they can see something ahead that’s different, that they have grown up with different kinds of people and know that the world can be a different place, and know how to bring out the best in us.

I also believe right now in the power of culture. I think that culture actually has more power than politics. I believe that with all my heart. I think that, you know, a work of art, a powerful and visionary work of art can make you empathize, can make you feel, can make you understand a life that’s not your own. And at the end of the day, understanding lives that are not our own is the way that we understand that we are one community.

MR. CAPEHART: And with that we’re going to have to leave it there. Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, thank you very much for coming on Washington Post Live.

MS. ALEXANDER: Thank you, Jonathan. It is always wonderful to talk with you. Thank you.

MR. CAPEHART: Great to see you.

And thank you for tuning in to Washington Post Live. If you want to see highlights from today’s program, or see other conversations in our Race in America series, head over to

But in the meantime, later this afternoon at 4:30 p.m. Eastern time, my colleague David Ignatius will interview Uber CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi.

I’m Jonathan Capehart, opinion writer for The Washington Post. Thank you very much for watching Washington Post Live.

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