Ford Foundation followed Rosenwald Fund in its support of the arts

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

Recently deceased cultural figures had Rosenwald connections

Elizabeth Catlett

Elizabeth Catlett, painter, sculptor and former Rosenwald fellow, passed away Monday in her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Catlett was born in Washington, D.C. in 1915 but moved around a lot as a student and artist, spending time at black universities such as Howard, Hampton and Dillard and also studying at the University of Iowa and the Art Institute of Chicago. Catlett’s large body of work cements her status as one of the great African American artists of the 20th century, and her obituaries note that she was one of the last remaining links to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s. Catlett was also married to another Rosenwald fellow, artist Charles White.

One of Catlett’s best-known works, a series of linoleum-block prints called The Negro Woman, was created with the help of consecutive Rosenwald fellowships in 1946 and 1947. The abstract black and white images in this series include portraits of black women doing everyday tasks, pictures of black luminaries such as Harriet Tubman and striking images of segregation and labor organization. The images are made more powerful by their bold and matter of fact titles, such as “I have always worked hard in America” and “My right is a future of equality with other Americans.” A print from this series belonging to the Whitney Museum can be viewed online here.

“Singing Head,” Elizabeth Catlett, 1980
Photo Credit: Michael Rose
Property of Smithsonian American Art Museum

It was the Rosenwald fellowship that initially brought Catlett to Mexico, where she spent the latter half of her life. According to Daniel Schulman’s essay in A Force for Change: African American Art and the Julius Rosenwald Fund, Catlett spent the first year of her fellowship thinking creatively about how to make a sophisticated artwork that would still communicate to a mass audience. At the same time, Catlett was honing her printmaking craft (which she first studied at Howard) at the Taller de Gráfica Popular, a political printmaking collective in Mexico. The Rosenwald grant allowed Catlett the freedom to gradually develop The Negro Woman, which Schulman, a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, called “[maybe] the most successfully realized and powerful project to have emerged from a Rosenwald Fellowship.”

Harry Crews

Author and University of Florida professor of creative writing Harry Crews, who also passed away within the last week (March 28th) spoke of a connection to Sears in his early life. Crews grew up in rural Georgia in a household that contained only two books, the Bible and the “Consumer’s Bible,” the annual Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue. As a child, he would make up stories with friends while paging through the catalogue, riffing on its idealized images.

Crews recounted this method of creative storytelling for a 2003 documentary called Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (IMDb), a scene from which can be seen here. “See, when I was a boy, the Sears Roebuck catalogue […] came to everybody’s mailbox in the South,” says Crews in the documentary. “First thing that struck us was everybody in the Sears Roebuck catalogue was perfect. Wasn’t any baldheads, everybody had all the fingers that was coming to ‘em. Nobody had any open and running sores on their bodies. But everybody we knew had a finger missing or one eye put out from a staple glancing off a post. In other words, everybody in our world was maimed and mutilated whereas everybody in the Sears Roebuck world was perfect. And so we just started to tell stories about the people. We’d give them names.”

The Washington Post ran detailed obituaries for both Ms. Catlett and Mr. Crews.

By Michael Rose