Mellon Foundation to Invest $250 Million to Rethink US Monuments

The Mellon Foundation announced a $250 million “Monuments Project” which will fund new inclusive and diverse public monuments while contextualizing and relocating existing ones.

Oct 5, 2020By Charlotte Davis, BA Art History
The Robert E. Lee Monument during the Black Lives Matter Protest, 2020 (left); with Detail from Nkyinkyim Installation by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, 2018, at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, via Rolling Stone (right)


During the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, numerous public monuments symbolizing historical and current systemic racism have been removed, destroyed or defaced. As part of a continuous effort to reshape the way US history is told, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has announced that it will dedicate $250 million to a new “Monuments Project.” 


The Mellon Foundation’s new project’s purpose is to “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” by building new monuments while contextualizing and relocating current ones over the next five years.


The Mellon Foundation’s “Monument Project” will focus on monuments, but will also work on institutions and interactive spaces such as museums and art installations. The Mellon Foundation states that the project “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.”


Afro Pick Monument by Hank Willis Thomas, 2017, via New York University


The first installment from the Mellon Foundation’s “Monuments Project” is a $4 million grant dedicated to Philadelphia’s Monument Lab, a public arts organization that works with activists and committees across the US on public projects focused on social justice. The grant will go towards a public statuary audit across the country. 


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This monumental effort comes after the Mellon Foundation’s President Elizabeth Alexander announced in July that it would shift its focus to social justice and activism. Alexander stated that in light of recent events concerning race and equity in the US, “the moment for the strategic rollout has come at a time for the country where it seems very clear in a much more widespread way that we all need to be thinking very sharply about how the work that we do contributes to a more just society.”


A Background Of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation 

Rise Up by Hank Willis Thomas, 2014, at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, via NBC News


The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is a private organization in New York City that focuses on the philanthropy of Arts and Humanities in the United States. It was formed from the 1969 merger between the Old Dominion Foundation and the Avalon Foundation, and its wealth and funding have been primarily accumulated through the Mellon Family of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Mellon Foundation has invested in the development of diverse and inclusive artistic and cultural institutions and monuments in the United States.


Since Elizabeth Alexander became the President of the Mellon Foundation in 2018, the Foundation has spent $25 million on initiatives for the preservation and erection of equitable monuments in the United States. It dedicated $5 million towards the construction of Montgomery’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice and $2 million for the conservation of important African American sites across the country. 


Black Lives Matter And Public Monuments 

The Robert E. Lee Monument during the Black Lives Matter Protest, 2020, via The New York Times


Recent events in the United States, including the murders of both George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police brutality, have prompted a controversy over public monuments commemorating slave owners, confederate soldiers, colonizers and other public figures who embody white supremacy. Since the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s death, over 100 statues in the United States have been removed, destroyed, or have plans to be removed. Additionally, monuments in many in other countries are being removed or defaced. 


While some of these removals have been publicly mandated, numerous undertakings of statue destruction or removal have been done by private citizens who acted when the government failed to do so. The monument removal has also prompted an influx of art rooted in activism and social justice. In Bristol, the United Kingdom, a statue of a 17th-century enslaver was torn down and replaced with a monument of Black Lives Matter protestor Jen Reid by artist Marc Quinn. However, the statue was removed shortly after. The Mellon Foundation’s “Monuments Project” will likely aid in the continuous efforts by many to diversify the commemorations and teachings of US history.

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By Charlotte DavisBA Art HistoryCharlotte is a contributing writer from Portland, Oregon now based in London, England. I’m an art historian with extensive knowledge in art history, classics, ancient art and archaeology.