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Ford Foundation President Darren Walker Receives France’s Highest Cultural Honor

Ford Foundation President Darren Walker Receives France’s Highest Cultural Honor

He’s a resounding voice for equity in the arts!

Ford Foundation president Darren Walker has received France’s highest cultural honor, WRAL reports.

Darren Walker joined the Ford Foundation in 2013, helming one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the nation. His mission in the role was to help shape the organization’s efforts to support social justice by funding the arts. One of the first orders of business was selling the foundation’s art collection of works, a collection almost completely compiled of white male artists. In 2017, the collection previously displayed at the foundation’s buildings was rebuilt with nearly 350 works from new artists, many of them women, queer people, and people of color. 

In 2018, the Ford Foundation, under the leadership of Walker, funded an exhibit at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery that highlighted Black models painted by modernists like Edouard Manet. Denise Murrell, a Ford Foundation fellow, curated the exhibit, flying to Musée d’Orsay in Paris where it received large fanfare. Laurence des Cars, now president-director of the Louvre Museum, teamed up with Walker and Murrell to bring the exhibit to Paris back when she was at the helm of the Musée d’Orsay. For Walker, aligning with French institutions made sense because of the nation’s familiar journey to freedom and equality for all.

“France, just like America, unfortunately, has engaged in the exclusion of… the art and culture and stories of people of African descent. France is on a journey…[toward the acknowledgment and inclusion of Black artists],” said Walker. 

For his efforts, Walker was honored as commander of France’s Order of Arts and Letters, the country’s highest cultural honor. He joins the likes of superstars Stevie Wonder, Meryl Streep, and poet T.S. Eliot, all of whom have also received the honor. The celebration took place in a New York mansion owned by the French embassy, Des Car bestowing the honor to Walker on behalf of France. 

“You see what others do not see or refuse to see, and you see what could be,” Des Car told Walker. 

French ambassador Phillippe Etienne was also in attendance, rattling off a list of projects Walker has supported during his time at the Ford Foundation. Walker was also acknowledged for his work on a number of art institution boards, as well as making history as the first Black man to sit on the board of the National Gallery of Arts.

“As president of the Ford Foundation, he brings the foundation, of course, but he brings himself too…a real passion, a real energy,” said Etienne. 

Nolen V. Bivens, Americans for the Arts president and CEO, also spoke about Walker’s commitment to the art, saying, “Darren Walker is the most influential arts policy grant maker and I would say thought leader in America, especially in the area of diversity and equity…[His] dedication to the support of the arts and certainly artists is exceptional.”

Walker, who was raised by a single mother in and later started his career in banking, said he’s honored and completely humbled to see how far his journey has brought him.

“Being in this firmament is absolutely humbling. I’m simply a servant to the idea of art and justice in the world, because we can’t have justice without art,” he told reporters. 

Congratulations, Darren! Because of you, we can!

Photo Courtesy of Kisha Bari/Ford Foundation/Associated Press