Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation. Under his leadership, the foundation has given generously to help build the National Museum of African American History and Culture; the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center to support culture labs that foster a deeper understanding of Asian Pacific Americans; Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum for two groundbreaking exhibitions, Design for the Other 90% and Access + Ability; and the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative. This fall, Walker was honored by Cooper Hewitt with the Director’s Award for his courageous vision for fighting social inequality, inspiring leadership and unwavering support of organizations that build a more inclusive and strong civil society.
What has been key to fostering the long relationship between the Ford Foundation and the Smithsonian?
In a democracy, institutions matter—institutions that endure and have the capacity to evolve, innovate and consistently renew themselves. The Smithsonian has demonstrated that time and time again. It is a defining institution for American identity and for determining who we are as a society, a people and a culture. The Smithsonian is more vital to the fabric of America than it ever has been.
The reason Ford has looked to the Smithsonian for almost six decades, consistently, is we need a partner that can help document and narrate the evolving richness of our history and culture.
The Smithsonian is a steward of our national history and curator of our culture. It is helping us overcome our differences and see our common humanity and what we all share as Americans.
What are the greatest needs in America that can be addressed by the Smithsonian with funding from the Ford Foundation?
I believe one of the greatest threats to our democracy is hopelessness. In a society with growing inequality there is growing hopelessness. Institutions like the Smithsonian give us hope and the promise of what is possible and what is yet to come. We need institutions that help us heal as a society. We need institutions that are platforms for reconciliation and remembrance. We need institutions that help us forge a path forward.
The Ford Foundation today is focused on reducing inequality in the world. A way inequality has manifested is the way our history is told. Part of what the Smithsonian is doing is “righting” history, because we have not always been told the full richness of our past. The Smithsonian is committed to ensuring all of our history—the contributions of many people who have been overlooked and whose stories have been left out—are incorporated into the American narrative.
Why is philanthropy important?
The institutions that comprise our democracy—our universities, health systems, research centers, cultural infrastructure, etc.—could not have been built without private philanthropy. Private philanthropy has helped catalyze American innovation for more than a century. It is a part of American culture, our history, our identity and an essential part of revenue for so much of the social sector in this country. Private capital makes it possible for more innovation, risk taking and for bold ideas to be undertaken.
Published January 2019 in IMPACT Vol. 5 No.1
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