Ford Foundation followed Rosenwald Fund in its support of the arts

Posted on April 19th, 2012 by

In the Arts section of April 9th’s New York Times, Sam Roberts writes about the little-known but influential philanthropoid, W. McNeil Lowry of the Ford Foundation. In 1959, Lowry allocated funds from the foundation to the author James Baldwin, who was struggling to complete his now-famous novel Another Country. Personal letters from Baldwin along with other documents from the Ford Foundation can now be viewed at the Rockefeller Archive Center. They tell the important story of a foundation that was committed to funding the arts in a time before such federal programs as the National Endowment for the Arts took up the cause.

Lowry was hired by the Ford Foundation in the wake of a major reorientation of the foundation’s goals. In The Ford Foundation: The Men and the Millions, Dwight MacDonald describes this shakeup as being precipitated by an influential article in a 1949 issue of Harper’s written by the head of the recently-dissolved Rosenwald Fund, Edwin R. Embree. The article, “Timid Billions: Are the foundations doing their job?” called on the large philanthropic foundations of the country to move away from conventional and conservative giving into the kind of risky, creative grants that had been provided by the Rosenwald Fund. At the time, endowments like the Rockefeller Foundation directed the vast majority of their grants to medicine and education, causes which Embree claimed were being increasingly funded by government and private donations. Embree argued that the role of the foundation should be more radical charity, because “social pioneering […] is the essential business of foundations” and foundations are “especially fitted to be the creative minority to spur society on” (qtd. in Alfred Perkins, Edwin Rogers Embree).

Edwin Rogers Embree

Embree’s “Timid Billions” greatly influenced the direction the Ford Foundation would take in the following years. In 1950, three years after Henry Ford’s death, the board of the foundation commissioned a “study report” to figure out the best path forward for the foundation. This report followed Embree’s prescriptions nearly completely, recommending “no spending on medicine, health, welfare agencies, or the natural (that is, physical) sciences,” (MacDonald, 159) causes which had made up the majority of the foundation’s budget up to that point. Instead, the foundation began putting money into what would become the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and, in the tradition of Embree and the Rosenwald Fund, individual grants to worthy artists like Baldwin who needed financial support.

The Times article also explains how the newly opened archives of the Ford Foundation may prove a valuable resource to art historians. For example, a letter from Baldwin describes a novel he hoped to publish that would have taken place in a Southern state and depicted the immediate reactions of slaves and slave-owners to emancipation. Likewise, the archives of the Rosenwald Fund, which gave similar grants to individuals, provide insight into the working process of many well-known artists, educators and scholars. Works completed under Rosenwald grants along with essays about the Rosenwald Fellowships can be found in A Force For Change: African American Art and the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a book-length study edited by Daniel Schulman.

By Michael Rose

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