Cakes and Ale and the Mellon Foundation

Sir Toby:
Dost thou think because thou
art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?

Twelfth Night Act 2, scene 3, 114–115

The Mellon Foundation has announced that, starting now, all its funding will prioritize work in the arts and humanities that advances “social justice.”  I will admit to very mixed feelings on reading this news.  Here’s a link about the shift:


First, a little bit about Mellon before my reaction.  This year the Foundation will make $500 million worth of grants.  They are the gorilla in the world of funding for the arts and humanities.  Only the NEH and NEA are even remotely comparable in terms of supporting organizations and big collaborative projects.  Individual fellowships are available from the ACLS and places like the National Humanities Center, but Mellon has been the place for infrastructural support of institutions.

Mellon has gone through a sea-change over the past thirty years.  In the 1990s, they were an astoundingly elite organization, with their humanities funding going almost exclusively to private universities with very few exceptions.  In the early 2000s they decided it was time to expand their portfolio and came to the University of North Carolina.  It has always been true that Mellon comes to you; there is no application process, just an invitation from Mellon to submit a proposal. It will be interesting to see if the new emphasis on social justice will be accompanied by a more open application process.  Getting in the door at Mellon has always been extraordinarily difficult, especially for those further down the prestige chain.

UNC’s first proposal was for Mellon to support our fledgling Latino Studies program.  Mellon was not interested in anything so politically fraught; it ended up funding our second proposal instead—for a program in Medieval and Early Modern Studies (MEMS).  Mellon’s evolution can be charted in the fact that its next two humanities projects it funded at UNC were in the digital humanities and then in the public humanities.  In other words, between 2004 when it funded MEMS and 2016 when it funded the Public Humanities Program, Mellon had moved from focusing on elite traditional scholarship to encouraging emerging humanities practices (digital humanities) and then on to supporting efforts to move the humanities out into public space beyond the university.

I have, over the past ten years or so, taken to asking various people: “do you think there will be professors of Victorian literature in fifty years?”  I take their answer as a litmus test of how far their heads are stuck in the sand.  To me it seems obvious that certain forms of literary scholarship are fast becoming dinosaurs.  And it also seems (to me, at least) incredibly difficult to justify the study of English literature as crucial to just about any good (social or individual) that we can name.  Do we really think our society is going to keep subsidizing the study of Dickens—and keep requiring that students read Dickens?  Only institutional inertia keeps the practice alive.

And yet.  Do we want to live in a world where no one reads Dickens?  In a society that says we can’t afford Dickens?  That we have other more important matters to attend to?  Even when the rationale is “social justice,” not economic viability, the reasoning is still utilitarian.  Activities without an impact, a deliverable, must go by the boards.

The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations abandoned the arts and humanities some years back.  The Mellon Foundation became the only place to go.  Mellon was a strong supporter of humanities institutes like the one I directed at UNC.  And it was a very generous supporter of arts programming at UNC, most memorably in our extravagant celebration of the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring—featuring commissioned performances, an academic conference, classes on modernism, and visiting artists.

It is hard to see how that Rite of Spring project could claim to contribute to social justice.  Is every dance company that looks to Mellon for support going to have to show how its choreography contributes to social justice?  Must humanities scholarship claim a social impact to garner Mellon money?

I have said my feelings are mixed.  I understand that Dickens scholarship may be a luxury we cannot afford.  It seems presumptuous to claim one is entitled to make a living teaching and studying Dickens.  For many years, I evaluated proposals for dissertation fellowships from across the university.  It was always difficult to balance a project from Public Health on breast cancer in non-white communities against a thesis on Melville.  The significance and social contribution of the one was obvious, while the work on Melville seemed like fiddling while Rome burned.  But what kind of society do we end up with if we declare non-utilitarian pursuits are a “privilege” that must be renounced?  No cakes and ale for the likes of you.

The arts and humanities in the United States have, to a very large extent, retreated to university campuses. (Outside of two or three big cities, any innovative or “avant-garde” artistic endeavors survive because of university support.)  In the midst of the pandemic, universities are in dire straits—and it doesn’t take a weatherman to see any ill wind as bringing more cuts to arts and humanities programs/departments that were already in a precarious position prior to COVID-19.  Mellon has been an increasingly crucial partner with universities since 2000—and has in the last twenty years extended that partnership far beyond the elite privates and the public flagships.

What is that partnership going to look like under the banner of “social justice”?  Access and affordability are certainly social justice issues—and there is much Mellon can do to further those goals.  So maybe more traditional (or more experimental), less immediately presentist, work will be supported if it has credible plans for reaching formerly unreached audiences.  But just how potentially popular will something have to be to qualify?

It’s ironic that I have these doubts and fears since I spent most of my academic career trying to push my discipline of literary studies and my university’s curriculum toward a more direct engagement with the analysis of contemporary society and its problems (injustices and inequities).  I think my hesitation now has to do with what seems to me an oversimplified vision of the relation of the arts to social issues.  I don’t think—at least in many cases—that there is a direct path from artistic vision or humanities scholarship to social effects.  Reading novels does not guarantee that the reader will care about, much less do anything to promote, social justice.  If Mellon insists on such direct social pay-offs, it will abandon large swathes of work in the arts and the humanities that it has supported in the past.  Such work really has no place else to go for support—and its loss will be felt in an artistic and scholarly world that will be diminished (less diverse) because Mellon has put its thumb on the scale.

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