NEW YORK -- Darren Walker, Ford Foundation president and preeminent connector and advocate for artists and art institutions, joined the exclusive company of global superstars like Stevie Wonder, T.S. Eliot and Meryl Streep, in receiving France's highest cultural honor.
Walker was named commander of France’s Order of Arts and Letters for his work as a benefactor of the arts on Tuesday at a Gilded Age mansion in New York owned by the French embassy.
“Being in this firmament is absolutely humbling,” Walker told The Associated Press. “I’m simply a servant to the idea of art and justice in the world, because we can’t have justice without art.”
Walker became president of the Ford Foundation, one of the largest in the U.S., in 2013. He came in with a vision to shape the organization’s giving to support social justice in part through funding the arts.
To symbolize that mission, Walker arranged to sell the foundation’s art collection of works almost exclusively from white male artists. Starting in 2017, the collection displayed at the foundation’s buildings was rebuilt with some 350 works of newer artists, many of whom are people of color, women and queer people.
Walker has steadily built a connection with French institutions in part because of what he described as the country's parallel journeys to live up to their founding ideals of freedom or liberty for all, equality and fellowship.
“France, just like America, unfortunately, has engaged in the exclusion of especially the art and culture and stories of people of African descent," Walker said. And just like in America, "France is on a journey" toward great inclusion and recognition of the contributions of Black artists, he said.
Under his leadership, the Ford Foundation funded an exhibition in New York at Columbia University's Wallach Art Gallery in 2018 that explored the participation of Black models painted by modernists like Edouard Manet in the creation of those works. The exhibition curated by Denise Murrell, who was a fellow at the Ford Foundation at the time, traveled to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris where it made a big impression.
Laurence des Cars, who is now president-director of the Louvre Museum, partnered with Walker and Murrell to bring the exhibit to Paris when she was leading the Musée d’Orsay.
On Tuesday, she bestowed the honor to Walker on France’s behalf in front of 50 guests in a room shimmering with mirrors that overlooks Central Park. Des Cars recalled Walker's unwavering support of the exhibition that they were told over and over would cause problems.
“You see what others do not see or refuse to see, and you see what could be,” she said before placing a medal on a green and white stripped ribbon around Walker's neck.
French ambassador Philippe Etienne listed off projects that the Ford Foundation and Walker have supported, including art residencies both in France and the U.S., and a planned exhibition highlighting the many Black American artists who spent time in France especially after World War II.
“As president of the Ford Foundation, he brings the foundation, of course, but he brings himself too," Etienne said, referring to Walker's expertise and knowledge, "but also a real passion, a real energy.”
Walker sits on the board of the National Gallery of the Arts, the first Black man to do so, as well as the boards of many other arts institutions and companies.
The Washington-based organization, Americans for the Arts, invited Walker in 2017 to give an annual address where he made the case for public funding of the arts, tracing his own journey as a child in Texas raised by a single mother to a banker and now leading voice in philanthropy.
Nolen V. Bivens, the organization's president and CEO, said Walker believes deeply in the power of cultural diplomacy and the power of art.
“Darren Walker is the most influential arts policy grant maker and I would say thought leader in America, especially in the area of diversity and equity,” he said, adding that Walker's “dedication to the support of the arts and certainly artists is exceptional.”
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