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Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Pledges $250 Million To Reimagine Monuments In U.S.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

One of the nation's leading philanthropies is charging into one of the country's leading cultural debates. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which provides financial support to NPR, has pledged a quarter of a billion dollars to reimagine the country's monuments.

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: This is about the whole range of American stories. You know, less than a half of 1% of our commemorative spaces tell Latinx stories, Asian American stories, Indigenous stories.

CORNISH: Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander says the project will award grants to artists and organizations that will recontextualize the country's current public spaces and add new ones. Elizabeth Alexander, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ALEXANDER: Thank you for having me on.

CORNISH: So this is not the first time you guys have put money towards an effort like this. There was $25 million in 2018 for memorials. What about that experience made you think, OK, let's go 10 times bigger?

ALEXANDER: Well, I think that this is the biggest initiative in Mellon's history. So definitely for us, this is major. Before I even came to Mellon, I have thought forever about, what stories have been told? What stories haven't been told? What do dominant narratives do to our understanding of history?

Mellon as a foundation is devoted to higher learning, devoted to deep knowledge. And as we further democratize our work, as we think about what it means to be a social justice foundation, the question of where and how we learn turns more and more to public space. People aren't always going to go into the university classroom in order to learn history, but what we see around us, what is ambient, is teaching us all the time.

CORNISH: Now, one of the project's goals is to relocate existing monuments. What does that mean? Because that was one of the biggest questions around this debate nationwide - was kind of, what do we do with these things, and where should they go? So what will - what does that mean to you all?

ALEXANDER: It's important for people to understand that the Mellon Foundation is not casting across the land, deciding what is to be relocated. But communities themselves do have opinions about what they live with, what story it teaches and what it teaches them and their children about themselves and their place in the world. And so sometimes, community first, there would be pieces that would be moved away.

CORNISH: Meaning if there has been a movement to take something down, the local government agrees, this is grant funding that could help in that process.

ALEXANDER: Yes, because it is complex literally, even physically complex. You know, the National Cathedral - if I could add one thing - had stained glass windows with the image of Robert E. Lee that they put in in 1953. Civil War was long gone and lost by then. And just a few years ago, they said this is an impediment to worship. We don't venerate this in a space that is holy. And they decided to take them down. And they haven't said, we're going to put them in a museum; we're going to do this, that or the other thing. They've said, we're going to think about this. And that's some deep and important work, and we're excited to be supportive of people in that process.

CORNISH: So some of this grant will, of course, go to support artists who focus on racial and social justice, right? So they will be producing new work. Can you give us an example of something like that?

ALEXANDER: Well, one thing you could do that is a recontextualization is Dustin Klein has an extraordinary project, where he is projecting in color onto the statue of Robert E. Lee images of Breonna Taylor, of George Floyd, of John Lewis, of Nelson Mandela, of other people whose lives we might want to commemorate.

We support the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Bryan Stevenson's Equal Justice Initiative, which does many pieces, including historical research into lynchings, marking where lynchings happened in spaces where the Confederacy is memorialized - a museum that teaches the story of our history and then the profound cathedral that is the memorial to honor the victims of lynching and to point towards reconciliation.

CORNISH: Elizabeth Alexander is the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Thank you for your time.

ALEXANDER: Thank you so much for your questions. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.