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Balking at Walker: Darren, Ford Foundation’s President, Becomes National Gallery’s New Trustee

The news that Darren Walker, activist president of the deep-pocketed Ford Foundation, has been named as one of the National Gallery of Art’s five “general trustees” (as distinguished from its trustees emeriti and ex officio members) gave me pause.

My misgivings arose from what struck me as Walker’s astonishingly clueless views on the current state of American museums, as expressed in his July 26 Op-Ed piece for the NY Times.

Darren Walker, President, Ford Foundation

Walker’s likely agenda for the NGA (as foretold in his Times piece, “Museums Need to Step Into the Future”) is captured in his essay’s subhead: “They [museums] reflect the country’s widening inequality. Their trustees must help fix this” [emphasis added].”

What Walker’s polemics overlook is that most (if not all) museums are well aware of their historic deficiencies and have been proactively addressing them. His opening salvo, quoted below, betrays Walker’s willingness to ignore the evidence in the interest of provocation.

Here’s his dismissive assessment of museums such as the one in which he is now a player:

America’s museums are more than repositories of ancient Greek statues and Renaissance paintings. They are guardians of a fading social and demographic order.

REALLY? This broad put-down applies to no U.S. museum I’ve visited over the last 10 years. It’s a convenient construct, but untrue and unfair.

The National Gallery has received no Ford Foundation grants over the past 10 years, its spokesperson told me in response to my query. Walker’s appointment, effective immediately, may change that, upping the NGA’s odds of benefiting from the $13-billion Ford Foundation’s $600 million in annual grants.

More significantly, his board seat will put Walker in a position to exert influence over the museum’s future priorities—an ironic twist in light of his Op-Ed’s disapproval of old-school governance whereby a museum’s “wealthy donors…decide what is valued.”

Notwithstanding Walker’s deprecation of museums as “repositories of Renaissance paintings,” the importance of revelatory, deeply scholarly exhibitions such as the NGA’s recent reexamination of Tintoretto (which I delighted in this summer) cannot to be denied.

Here’s my installation shot from that show. Several visitors are viewing, one is resting, one is sketching:

Photos by Lee Rosenbaum

Walker again lectures (or hectors) us at the end of his piece:

Directors and their staffs can enact bold forward-looking visions only when their boards support them in seeing museums as spaces to challenge, take creative risks and not simply conserve [emphasis added].

I believe that most (if not all) U.S. museums are already doing what Walker advocates. No museum I’ve ever visited defines its mission as: “Simply Conserve.” Some are more dynamic than others, but Walker’s lame, unadventurous museum is a straw man.

To get a better sense of what he may value in museums, I perused the list of Ford Foundation 2019 Arts, Culture and Media Grants and did a double take when I came across this recipient: Former Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman was awarded $65,000 “to conduct research documenting the legal battle in Federal court—‘the Brooklyn Museum v. City of New York’—over the 1999 exhibit, ‘SENSATION: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection.'”

Collector’s Item? My ticket to “SENSATION”

That was then. This is now: In 2019, shouldn’t we be focusing our attention on today’s more urgent, troubling issues regarding Rudy Giuliani?

Another Ford grant that caught my eye was $250,000 to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for Julie Mehretu (opening Nov. 3)—“a career retrospective of the artist, an icon Immigrant Queer artist of African [more precisely, Ethiopian] descent [emphasis added], in collaboration with the Whitney Museum.” An artist of Mehretu’s stature shouldn’t need to check all those “identity” boxes to merit our (or the Ford Foundation’s) attention and admiration.

For some reason, Wangechi Mutu, a Kenyan-American feminist, was not similarly encumbered by descriptors in the Ford Foundation’s list of its 2019 grantees. The Metropolitan Museum received $200,000 for “core support to commission [Mutu] to create an installation [of four bronze statues] on its historic façade [to Jan. 12] and for related public and educational programming.”

Here are views of two of Mutu’s four regal sentinels, as installed in previously empty niches in front of the Met—the first of what are intended to be annual commissions “to animate the Met’s historic facade,” in the words of the Exhibition Overview:

Partial Views of The NewOnes, will free Us by Wangechi Mutu

Might CultureGrrl be able to get a Ford Foundation “Media Grant” to animate my blog? That notion would be as delusional as Walker’s belief that institutions need to be told to “look beyond the gilded frames of this new Gilded Age” and that boards “need to stop seeing diversity as subtracting from their annual revenue.”

His rhetoric is catchy, but his arguments are as insensitive and condescending as they are erroneous. I don’t know what benighted institutions and boards Darren is intent on belittling: I challenge him to name them.

His ideal museum may be the only other one for which he is a board member, according to his online bio—the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (reviewed by me here), which had the 21st-century advantage of starting from scratch and having inclusiveness baked into its DNA.

Yes, there’s more work to be done at most museums in furthering diversity of staff, programming and, especially, boards. Part of this is a pipeline problem, and the Ford Foundation, to its credit, has been actively addressing this by directing grants towards broadening the reach of internships and training programs. Walker’s comment that board membership should be more widely open to those who can make important contributions other than financial (i.e., artists, community leaders) is a point well taken.

But while not accomplished as quickly as Walker might like, the work of “redefin[ing] excellence and relevance” in the 21st-century museum is well underway. This should be acknowledged by Walker, not ignored. Maybe being on the board of one of our country’s preeminent art museums will give him a more sympathetic understanding of the field that he has so cavalierly debunked.

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