A Courageous Vision for Philanthropy

Posted on Tue., June 27, 2023 by Sandy Masuo
An audience watches two people have a conversation on a stage, where a large graphic says, “Why It Matters.”

Ford Foundation President Darren Walker and Huntington President Karen R. Lawrence engaged in a compelling examination of the relationship among the arts, humanities, and philanthropy. | Photo by Sarah M. Golonka.

In sitting down with Ford Foundation President Darren Walker for the May 31 “Why It Matters” event, Huntington President Karen R. Lawrence set the stage for a lively conversation: “You’ve called hopelessness the great threat of our time, along with climate change, and said that without hope, democracy cannot flourish.” Thus began an hourlong exchange, during which Lawrence and Walker addressed a range of issues for a packed auditorium (and a livestream)—from the changing and challenging post-pandemic landscape of philanthropy to the role of the humanities and the arts, which Walker characterized as “the oxygen of democracy.” Through his personal anecdotes and observations, peppered with vitality and wit, he made clear that optimism—shaped by his early exposure to reading and the arts—resides at the core of his accomplishments and vision for the future.

Walker grew up in an economically precarious single-parent household in rural Texas. He recalled how, in his youth, he helped his grandparents, who did housework for a family in Houston, by bundling magazines and Christie’s art auction catalogs before they were discarded. Browsing through their pages, he said, opened windows into new realms of possibility. “I would … see a world so far removed from my world, and yet I believed that it was possible for me to be in that world. It was my first occasion to see what I came to understand was … a way of living that required you to be knowledgeable about culture, about art, about literature.” He emphasized that a love of reading and the arts helped him develop empathy and understanding, which are essential in the pursuit of philanthropy.

Two people in conversation on a stage.

Walker delved into some of the specific changes in higher education and finance that might create a more equitable society. | Photo by Sarah M. Golonka.

Walker’s optimistic worldview, tempered with analytic acumen and wry humor, punctuated the evening, even when the conversation turned to the shortcomings of such philanthropic luminaries of the past as Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie. Lawrence observed that The Huntington and Ford Foundation began in an era when those who had amassed great wealth were expected to become society’s benefactors. “Generosity, giving back, was a part of the way that cultural and other institutions were founded,” she said, prompting Walker to explore growing economic disparities in the intervening years and how they are reflected in the institutions that grew out of them.

Carnegie’s 1889 treatise, “The Gospel of Wealth,” inspired Walker’s book, From Generosity to Justice: A New Gospel of Wealth, which examines the limitations of old-school philanthropy. “Those men believed that inequality was a natural byproduct of the unique skills that God had given them as good Christian men,” Walker said. “They did not challenge the system that made them wealthy.” He then cited Rockefeller’s founding of Spelman College in Atlanta, radical for its time because it was motivated by the idea that young Black women should be educated. And yet, Walker noted, the gesture was limited by underlying racism.

Rockefeller “didn’t believe that those young Black women should go to Smith and Wellesley with his daughters, but he did believe that they should be educated in a system that was our own form of apartheid.” Walker went on to quote Martin Luther King Jr. (“Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”) and the late U.S. Sen. John Lewis (“Courage can feel uncomfortable. Courage is not about being popular; it’s about purpose.”). In a candid exchange with Lawrence about changes that would truly challenge the system that perpetuates inequality, Walker raised the possibility of ending legacy admissions at selective schools and changing tax structures that allow the wealthy to maintain economic inequities.

Two people in conversation on a stage.

Walker shared incisive observations and anecdotes that underscored the need for philanthropic leadership to reflect the society it serves. | Photo by Sarah M. Golonka.

Lawrence delved into the notion of a new, more assertive form of philanthropy—what Walker calls “social justice philanthropy”—keying in on his assertion that it is not enough to give back, that achieving an equitable society when “capitalism as it is practiced today is not sustainable” will involve making sacrifices to achieve long-term progress.

The conversation also focused on the transformational power of art, notably the works of Kehinde Wiley that reside at the Ford Foundation and The Huntington, which Lawrence framed as an important, symbolic link between the two institutions and an indication of how institutions can continue to evolve. Walker commended The Huntington for making manifest the connection between its historic collections and Wiley’s art by commissioning A Portrait of a Young Gentleman and explained that the Ford Foundation’s acquisition of Wiley’s 2015 painting Wanda Crichlow (Portrait of Catharina Both van der Eem) represented a new era for his institution. It was the first purchase made with funds from the sale of Henry Ford’s entire collection of 412 artworks—a move that initially caused discomfort at the Foundation but was a clear demonstration of how an institution can open a door to new possibilities and perspectives.

An audience watches two people have a conversation on a stage, where a large graphic shows two paintings.

Lawrence highlighted the works of artist Kehinde Wiley as a symbolic link between the Ford Foundation and The Huntington. | Photo by Sandy Masuo.

When asked what his “call to action” for the audience would be, Walker recited a few lines from “Let America Be America Again,” a poem by his favorite American poet, Langston Hughes. The poem criticizes America’s claims of equality, Walker observed, but ultimately serves as a call to action. “His directive to people like me was: You better be hopeful, and you better get to work, because there is an urgency to help save this country and allow America to be America for some of us for the first time.”

“It takes leadership, it takes vision, it takes courage to do some of the things you have done here,” Walker told Lawrence, “as you have helped to transform this onetime sleepy jewel to be fully realized in its potential. To be not only a place where art and culture, humanities, and beautiful gardens are resonant, but where people can come for inspiration and for a reminder that beauty belongs to everyone. And the doors are open here.”

Two people pose for the camera in front of a garden of green brush and trees.

Walker’s participation in the “Why It Matters” event followed his first visit to The Huntington. | Photo by Sarah M. Golonka.

You can watch a video of this event on The Huntington’s website.

Celebrating The Huntington’s unparalleled opportunities for cross-disciplinary exploration of human culture and history, the “Why It Matters” series features Huntington President Karen R. Lawrence in conversation with distinguished guests about the enduring relevance of the humanities.

Sandy Masuo is the senior writer in the Office of Communications and Marketing at The Huntington.