Mellon Foundation to spend $250 million to reimagine monuments

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Mellon Foundation to spend $250 million to reimagine monuments
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors lynching victims, in Montgomery, Ala., April 20, 2018. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the largest humanities philanthropy in the United States, has pledged to spend $250 million over five years to help reimagine the country’s approach to monuments and memorials, in an effort to better reflect the nation’s diversity and highlight buried or marginalized stories. Audra Melton/The New York Times.

by Jennifer Schuessler

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the largest humanities philanthropy in the United States, has pledged to spend $250 million over five years to help re-imagine the country’s approach to monuments and memorials, in an effort to better reflect the nation’s diversity and highlight buried or marginalized stories.

The Monuments Project, the largest initiative in the foundation’s 50-year history, will support the creation of new monuments, as well as the relocation or rethinking of existing ones.

And it defines “monument” broadly to include not just memorials, statues and markers but also “storytelling spaces,” as the foundation puts it, like museums and art installations.

“The beauty of monuments as a rubric is, it’s really a way of asking, ‘How do we say who we are? How do we teach our history in public places?’” said Elizabeth Alexander, the foundation’s president.

“So much teaching happens without us going into a classroom, and without us realizing we’re being taught,” she continued. “We want to ask how we can help think about how to give form to the beautiful and extraordinary and powerful multiplicity of American stories.”

The announcement comes amid intensifying challenges to Confederate monuments and other controversial memorials, a number of which have come down across the country in the wake of this summer’s protests over racism and police violence. The initiative also arrives as the foundation, which has an endowment of more than $6 billion, has officially revised its mission to put social justice at the center of its support for scholarly research, higher education and the arts.

Even before the reset, Mellon had spent $25 million on monument-related projects over the past two years. Grants have included $5 million to support the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama, which honors Black lynching victims across the country, and $250,000 for a monument in New York’s Central Park to an African American abolitionist family who lived in Seneca Village, a 19th-century Black community razed to build the park.

The first major grant under the new $250 million initiative will be a $4 million, three-year gift to Monument Lab, a Philadelphia-based public art and research studio that works with artists and community groups across the country to “re-imagine public spaces through stories of social justice and equity,” according to its website.

That grant will include what the foundation calls a “definitive audit” of the existing commemorative landscape across the country. “For example, one thing I want to know is, what percentage of monument sites are dedicated to women?” Alexander said.

The project will also involve rethinking what forms monuments can take and investigating what communities want from them. “How do communities feel about that which they live in the midst of?” Alexander said. “What do they feel should be commemorated, and what stories do they think should be told?”

Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans, praised the foundation for making a big commitment not just to the creation of new monuments but also to the politically fraught and often expensive task of taking down existing slabs of metal and stone.

In 2017, when he oversaw the removal of New Orleans’ last four Confederate monuments, “there was pushback, wrongly I think, on using public money to take them down or put them back up” elsewhere, he said. The removal of the statues, which he said are currently in storage, was ultimately supported by the Ford, Kellogg, Rockefeller and Kresge foundations.

“I am thrilled that now these guys are stepping up, and putting money behind it,” Landrieu, now the president of the nonprofit group E Pluribus Unum, said of Mellon’s $250 million commitment. “I hope other philanthropic groups will continue to work together to lift up the entire history of the country.”

Alexander emphasized that the foundation would not itself be recommending any monuments for removal or rethinking. “It will depend on who comes to us, with which project,” she said.

But at the core of the efforts, she said, is exploring new ways to honor America’s histories, an approach that goes beyond honoring only famous leaders.

As an example of more inclusive monuments, she cited Maya Lin’s celebrated Vietnam memorial, with its thousands of engraved names. She also noted a less famous personal favorite: “Path of Stars,” a 1994 installation in New Haven, Connecticut, by Sheila de Bretteville, which embeds tributes to the lives of ordinary citizens in the sidewalk, in the style of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Where old monuments remain, they can be recontextualized, with new perspectives and information added to reveal their distortions or erasures. As an example, she cited artist Dustin Klein’s light projections this summer on the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, which superimposed the faces of figures like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman on the monument, allowing it to tell two stories at once.

“The beauty of the deep study of history is when you realize there’s not just one story, and there’s not just two stories,” she said. “You realize the power of this country is our multiplicity.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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