“To be in this firmament is humbling,” Walker told The Associated Press. “I am simply a servant of the idea of art and justice in the world, because we cannot have justice without art.”
Walker became president of the Ford Foundation, one of the largest in the United States, in 2013. He came with a vision to shape the organization’s giving to support social justice in part through arts funding.
To symbolize this mission, Walker arranged to sell the foundation’s collection of artwork almost exclusively by white male artists. As of 2017, the collection on display in the foundation’s buildings has been rebuilt with some 350 works by newer artists, many of whom are people of color, women, and queer people.
Walker regularly connected with French institutions in part because of what he described as the country’s parallel journeys to live up to their founding ideals of liberty or freedom for all, equality and fraternity .
“France, like America, unfortunately, has engaged in the exclusion of the art, culture and stories of people of African descent,” Walker said. And just like in America, “France is on a journey” towards greater inclusion and recognition of the contributions of black artists, he said.
Under his direction, 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 these works. The exhibition curated by Denise Murrell, then a member of the Ford Foundation, traveled to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris where it made a strong impression.
Laurence des Cars, now president and director of the Louvre Museum, partnered with Walker and Murrell to bring the exhibit to Paris when she ran the Musée d’Orsay.
On Tuesday, she bestowed the honor on Walker on behalf of France in front of 50 guests in a shimmering hall of mirrors that overlooks Central Park. Des Cars recalled Walker’s unwavering support for the exhibit that they had been told time and time again that it would cause problems.
“You see what others don’t or refuse to see, and you see what could be,” she said before placing a medal on a green and white striped ribbon around Walker’s neck.
French Ambassador Philippe Etienne listed the projects supported by the Ford and Walker Foundation, including artistic residencies in France and the United States, and a planned exhibition highlighting the many black American artists who have spent time in France. , especially after World War II.
“As president of the Ford Foundation, he brings the foundation, of course, but he himself also brings,” Etienne said, referring to Walker’s expertise and knowledge, “but also a real passion, real energy.”
Walker serves on the board of the National Gallery of Art, the first black man to do so, as well as on the boards of numerous other art institutions and enterprises.
The Washington-based organization Americans for the Arts invited Walker in 2017 to deliver an annual speech where he advocated for public funding of the arts, retracing his own journey as a child in Texas raised by a single mother to a banker and now leader of philanthropy.
Nolen V. Bivens, president and CEO of the organization, said Walker believes deeply in the power of cultural diplomacy and the power of art.
“Darren Walker is the most influential arts policy funder and I would say thought leader in America, particularly in the area of diversity and equity,” he said, adding that ” Walker’s dedication to supporting the arts and certainly artists is outstanding.”
This story corrects the name of the National Gallery of Art. It’s not the National Gallery of the Arts.
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