On the Art of Change
by Darren Walker, President
For as long as I can remember, the arts have imbued energy and meaning into my life.
As a small child in a little Southeast Texas town, I pored over the glossy pages of art magazines that my grandmother, a domestic, brought me from the homes of the wealthy families for whom she worked. Page after page, hour after hour, my mind visited worlds from which I otherwise would have been excluded. In many ways, because of the arts, my economic situation never limited my expectations for myself. The arts broadened my horizons — my very sense of the possible.
As a student at the University of Texas at Austin, I first saw the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and everything clicked. My life was changed forever.
As a young professional in New York City in the 1980s, I fell in love with the city’s museums and galleries and treasured institutions, the likes of which I had never experienced before. I found a passion for the performing arts — for Alvin Ailey and others — and for the theater, documentary film and the writers of Harlem, especially Langston Hughes and James Baldwin.
It was Baldwin — a Ford Foundation grantee — who wrote, “The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.” To me this rang true because I was insatiably curious about the world, and in art I found meaning. This was at a time, by the way, when I fell in love with an art dealer — and was introduced to a new world of artists, collectors, curators and critics.
As a result of all this, I am a fervent believer in the transformational, uplifting power of artistic expression. In fact, I am a product of it.
I ardently believe I would not be standing before you today as the president of the Ford Foundation if not for my exposure to the arts. And, in turn, throughout my two-decade career in philanthropy, I have advocated for creative visionaries. I have sought new ways to support them, and to amplify voices of those artists around the globe who are not being heard.
AN UNDERLYING CRISIS: OUR MENTALITY OF INSTRUMENTALITY
And yet, given the importance of art and culture in my life, and in society, I have noticed a troubling trend during the last few years.
We all know how repressive regimes stifle creativity and persecute artists who rouse public sentiment for the sake of public good. But even where artists do enjoy freedom of expression, artists and art institutions are forced to justify their contributions in economic terms alone. Their relevance — their very existence — is often defended with studies and statistics.
All of this reflects a larger trend, of course: Our culture has bought into the idea that if something cannot be measured, then it somehow does not matter.
No doubt, it is not easy to quantify the so-called impact of a musician, dancer, painter, or filmmaker — let alone a graffitist or video-game coder. In my eyes, though, this is no excuse for only supporting those things that deliver immediately quantifiable returns.