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The Importance of Soul of a Nation

March 20, 2018

Last year, I was deeply moved to see the Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Powerexhibit at the Tate Modern in London – and my colleagues and I were so proud to support it. By exploring art by black artists from 1963 to 1983, this exhibition both reflects a specific period in American history and captures the integral role of art in the fight for social change.

But while this exhibition says so much about our country’s past – and still feels so relevant to today’s struggles for justice – at the time, these pieces remained an ocean away, inaccessible to the vast majority of Americans. Few people could get on a plane to London to experience this work, especially those most likely to be affected by the ideas and issues depicted in these works, or the era they come from; the very Americans this exhibit might inspire.

Benny Andrews – Did the Bear Sit Under a Tree?, 1969. Oil on canvas with painted fabric collage and zipper. 50 x 61 3/4 x 2 1/4 in. Private Collection; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

In order for Soul of a Nation to make an even greater impact, we knew we had to bring it to the nation it described and sought to understand. In other words, we needed to bring this powerful collection to the United States. That’s why I am so glad and grateful that Alice Walton jumped at the chance – and that this exhibition has found a home at the dynamic Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

It’s true that an exhibition like this might have been well received in one of the typical destinations for art – coastal cities like New York or Los Angeles – but it’s especially powerful that Soul of a Nation can be found in the nation’s heartland. From the moment we spoke about the exhibition, it was clear that Alice understood the value of these pieces and their contribution to art, as well as the unique experience this collection would create for all those who might see it. On top of that, given Alice’s commitment to diversifying and disrupting the art world, I could not imagine a better place for this work to make its American debut.

Visitors view Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Beyond the extraordinary collection, the cultural value of work like this cannot be understated in our democracy. Exhibitions like Soul of a Nation are essential to lift up the voices of artists who push us to think differently about the uncomfortable aspects of our reality, including topics of inequality and injustice. To be able to do that in a place as inviting as Crystal Bridges, and to enable visitors to connect with this art – that challenges, questions and asks us to empathize with different ideas about America – is a gift, especially for audiences who do not have many other opportunities to engage with art that tackles race in this particular way.

At the Ford Foundation, we are committed to finding ways to combat inequality by championing the voices and perspectives of communities who have been silenced or left out. It’s the rationale behind so much of our work on the arts, from our Art of Change fellowships to our JustFilms support for documentary film and emerging media.

Of course, the work of making the arts more diverse and reflective of the entire American experience goes beyond what hangs on the walls of any one museum. It also includes the people who make the decisions about what exhibitions we choose to highlight and promote.

I feel so fortunate that my Ford Foundation colleagues and I have been able to partner with Alice and the Walton Family Foundation on the Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative, to make sure more people and more communities are represented in the world of art. Together, we are committing $6 million over the next three years to support 20 museums across the country as they develop programs to nurture talent and diversify their curatorial and management staff.

There’s no question that we have more work to do in the world of the arts, and in our country as a whole, but Soul of a Nation represents yet another exciting step in the right direction.

Artists and art museums hold up a mirror to a society, help us understand who we really are as people and as a society, and inspire empathy in the process. Our challenge – and opportunity – is to make sure that everyone who engages with art can recognize the reflection.

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