Mellon Foundation pledges $250 million to help reshape American monuments

A More Just Public Square

Mellon Foundation pledges $250 million to help reshape American monuments

The J.E.B. Stuart Monument in Richmond, Virginia, pictured in May 2020. The Confederate equestrian statue has since been removed and placed in storage. (Quidster4040/Tyler Walter/Wikimedia Commons/(CC BY 4.0)

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the largest private philanthropic organization dedicated to the arts and humanities in the United States, announced the launch of the Monuments Project, a five-year, $250 million grant initiative that will fund the creation of new memorials, monuments, and “historic storytelling spaces” across the county that honor and celebrate the diverse number of Americans and American histories often overlooked and unrepresented in the public space. It will also financially support both the relocation of existing memorials and monuments—relics that are far too often painful, problematic, or overtly racist—along with efforts that leave these bad monuments standing in their current locations but in a newly contextualized manner brought about by further education, research, and installations.

Per the Mellon Foundation, the Monuments Project “will support efforts to recalibrate the assumed center of our national narratives to include those who have often been denied historical recognition. This work has taken on greater urgency at a moment of national reckoning with the power and influence of memorials and commemorative spaces.”

The Foundation continues:

“Mellon’s initiative will educate us about our shared collective past to shape a more just future. It will broaden our understanding of how we define commemorative spaces by including not only memorials, historical markers, public statuary, and permanent monuments but also storytelling spaces and ephemeral or temporary installations.

The Monuments Project will transform the way our country’s histories are told in public spaces and ensure that future generations inherit a commemorative landscape that venerates and reflects the vast, rich complexity of the American story.”

According to a news statement released by the Foundation, the Philadelphia-based Monument Lab is the inaugural organization to receive funding in the form of a three-year, $4 million grant that will enable it to continue working with artists and activists in numerous major cities to creatively reframe existing monuments—many of them erected for the sole purpose of oppression and intimidation—to shift the narrative and tell stories of social justice and equity. The funds will also enable Monument Lab to conduct an audit of the “existing national monument landscape across the United States.”

Similar statuary and public art-cataloging/reexamining initiatives have been launched in several cities both home and abroad—Chicago and London among them—in response to the ongoing historic civil rights movement catalyzed by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans. The public momentum involved with calling out and seeking to bring to an end to systemic racism and police brutality has led to the felling or preemptive removal of numerous monuments and statues representing the failed American Confederacy and historic figures like Christopher Columbus who, although big names in the annals of American history, are tied to genocide, enslavement, and the destruction of non-White/European communities.

While the Monuments Project very much speaks to the urgency of this exact moment in time, the 51-year-old Mellon Foundation noted that the grant program had been in formal development since 2018 following “years of discussion, research, and intellectual exploration.”

After Elizabeth Alexander, a poet, playwright and former chair of the African American Studies department at Yale University stepped in as president of the Mellon Foundation two years ago, it has placed a special emphasis on awarding grants, totaling $25 million in total so far, not including the Monuments Project, that help to “diversify the American public history and memory landscape.” Among these beneficiaries is the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Black Seed, a new initiative dedicated to supporting Black-led theaters and performing arts companies that was named as the recipient of a $5 million gift by the Foundation earlier this month.

The Monuments Project is described as being a signature initiative of Alexander.

“Monuments, memorials, and other commemorative spaces convey both individual narratives and national values,” said Alexander in a statement. “They shape the histories of who we are and influence ongoing discussion about which people in our society are considered worth celebrating and remembering. By providing key support to visionary artists and cultural organizations that seek to reimagine how fundamental stories and experiences may be publicly commemorated in new monuments and memorials, this unprecedented Mellon commitment will help inform our collective understanding of our country’s profoundly diverse and weighty history and ensure that those who haven’t been taught this history can learn it in the public square.”

More on the overall aim of the Monuments Project can be found on their FAQ page.