France Honors Darren Walker

France Honors Darren Walker

On May 24, 2022, Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, was honored with the insignia of Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by Laurence des Cars, President and Director of the Louvre Museum. They were welcomed by Ambassador Etienne at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York.

Ambassador Etienne began by thanking Darren Walker for his exceptional contribution to French arts and culture:

Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pleasure and emotion that we welcome you all here to Villa Albertine this evening to honor Mr. Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation.

Dear Darren, tonight, France has the incredible privilege of awarding you the medal of Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, recognizing eminent artists and writers, and those who have contributed significantly to furthering the arts and culture in France and throughout the world.

This ceremony is special in many ways, first by the level of award, Commander, the highest grade awarded in the Order of Arts and Letters, as well as by the truly exceptional guests gathered around you to celebrate this evening, and by the incredible leadership of the person who is about to preside over the ceremony, Laurence des Cars. No one could be more appropriate to bestow this honor than your long-time friend and your partner in bringing the landmark exhibition Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today, curated by Denise Murell, to the Musée D’Orsay. Laurence des Cars left the Musée d’Orsay to become the first woman to lead the Louvre, but I know you remain by her side in support of her transformative endeavors.

Most of all, this ceremony is made special by you, Darren, by your vision that the world faces the urgent need to become a better place, and by your unparalleled accomplishments towards this goal that span the arts and culture as well as education and economic and sustainable development.

On my own behalf and on behalf of the French Embassy, I wish to express my profound admiration for your tremendous achievements in the service of a more just and equitable society, and your dedication to fostering cultural and intellectual exchange that crosses borders and boundaries.

Your accomplishments are too numerous to name here, and I will let Laurence des Cars, President and Director of the Louvre, speak more on these in just a moment. As I have observed firsthand and benefited directly with my team from the “Darren” method, I would like to acknowledge and thank you for your visionary leadership of the fruitful partnership between the Ford Foundation and the French Embassy in the United States, and today, Villa Albertine, amplifying the voices of diverse artists and thinkers on an international scale.

Your support has encouraged us to ask important questions and strive to better reflect the full diversity and richness of artists living and working in France and across the world. In a few short years of working together, we have already supported nearly 30 projects in contemporary dance and theater, worked to facilitate better knowledge of the African American art scene in France (notably by inviting African American artists to teach within French art schools), supported new art historical scholarship on under-researched work by African American artists, and launched an exchange program welcoming creators and thinkers from across the African continent in residence across the US, as part of Villa Albertine.

We are delighted to work together towards our shared goals of encouraging new conversations across the arts, education, and culture. Darren, as a leader, you have an unmatched ability to forge connections and partnerships that yield spectacular results. Your conviction and strength of vision reflect the democratic values held dear by the French Republic, and we recognize your valuable contributions with gratitude and admiration. It is now my pleasure to give the floor to Laurence des Cars.

Laurence des Cars, President and Director of the Louvre, highlighted Darren Walker's role in fostering innovative cultural exchanges between France and the US, particularly on the occasion of the exhibition "Le Modèle noir, de Géricault à Matisse" at Musée d'Orsay:

Monsieur l’ambassadeur,

Monsieur le Consul Général,

Dear Darren,

Dear Friends,

Tonight’s atmosphere of joy, enthusiasm, and excitement reminds me of a very special evening we hosted in the Musée d’Orsay’s salon des fêtes three years ago. I was then president of the museum. We were celebrating the opening of an exceptional exhibition that would not have existed if not for Darren Walker’s intuition, determination, and strength of conviction: “Le Modèle noir, de Géricault à Matisse.”

That night, Darren and I, like everyone else, shared the same sentiment: that this exhibition was about to push back some firmly established boundaries; that it would certainly mark the beginning of a new chapter not only for the Musée d’Orsay but for French museums in general; that it would bring about change.

At that point, exhibitions and scholarship that mined European imagery of the past featuring black figures had already had a long and successful track record. But French museums’ silence in this dialogue had been a glaring absence. Until Darren Walker came along.

“Le Modèle noir” was an expanded version of a show entitled “Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today,” mounted at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery in 2018-2019, with the support of the Ford Foundation. “Posing Modernity” was curated by Denise Murrell, a promising young scholar, who wrote her doctoral dissertation a few years before on the material that formed the exhibition’s core. Denise was then a fellow of the Ford Foundation and was looking, with Darren’s help, for ways to make her project cross the Atlantic.

Upon my first meeting with Darren, I was struck by how he lived the world, by his deep belief in values, by his commitment to bringing people together across lines of class, origin, and circumstance.

I met someone determined to help us understand our long-standing failures, our collective amnesia around specific issues, and our true aspirations as a society, beyond the cultural differences between our two countries.

But I also met someone determined to do so without judgment, without rancor, without animosity – only with generosity, humility, and selflessness. With grace and gravity. We were both convinced that the Musée d’Orsay could be an ideal place to grapple with the complex history of black figures in French arts.

And yet, that the Musée d’Orsay would take up an exhibition project by a French and American curator team to embrace the necessity to consider the black presence in French art was a risky gamble. Darren became the ideal compagnon de route in this adventure, loyal and dedicated, when no one else believed in the project, and financial support was hard to find from within the country. He also became a treasured friend along the way.

The “Modèle noir” adventure says a lot about Darren’s determination, ambition, and strength of vision. I know how much the tremendous success of the show meant to him. I remember talking to other museum directors and curators jealous that the “Modèle noir” catalog took up so much space on the shelves in Darren’s Zoom background during the pandemic, when all events were switched online.

You said, Mr. Ambassador, that you know Darren Walker remains by my side as I embark in this new journey as President-Director of the Louvre. You could not be more right. I have already had occasions to verify it since I took office last September. And I know that I can count on his help in the years to come.

Dear Darren,As we salute you tonight, we salute the ways in which you created so much change, through the arts and culture, in France, in the United States, and, indeed, in the world. Through the work you have accomplished since 2013 as president of the Ford Foundation, the second-largest philanthropy in America, and before Ford as vice president at Rockefeller Foundation and COO of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, your life has been dedicated to creating engaged, innovative, and impactful change.

You led the philanthropy committee that helped bring a resolution to the city of Detroit’s historic bankruptcy; you chair the US Alliance on Impact Investing; you co-founded the Foundation Presidents’ Council on Disability Rights; you serve as a trustee on many boards, including Carnegie Hall, New York City Ballet, the High Line, the National Gallery of Art, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History & Culture.

Everything you have done, everything you do, respond to the deep belief that arts and culture must always be connected to equity and social justice. That cultural institutions must generate debate and raise questions. And that every decision this implies demands a deep sense of responsibility to the future.

It is manifested in your actions, large and small, that aim to generate debate around key issues, to increase diversity and inclusivity, to build bridges between communities. Ambassador Étienne reminded us of the great support the Ford Foundation, under your guidance, has offered to the French Embassy in the United States and, even more recently, the Villa Albertine, to promote artistic and cultural diversity in our two countries and across the world.

You have been, in particular, a long-time supporter of the “Étant Donné” program, intended to shed light on the African-American cultural scene in France.

Through numerous grants and fellowships, the Ford Foundation has made possible countless similar projects. In 2020, you supported the “We Return Fighting” exhibition at the National Museum of African-American History & Culture, giving voice to African-American soldiers returning from France after the end of World War I. In collaboration with Ambassador Étienne, you also participated in the creation of an exhibition on African-American artists, writers, and thinkers who fled racism from the United States to settle in Paris in the 1950s and 60s: James Baldwin, Beauford Delaunay, Richard Wright, among others. This exhibition will be hosted by the New York Public Library before going to Paris.

To talk about your contributions to art, to cities, to cultural institutions and to our world, is indeed to talk about change. A word that you live, as is made vivid by the vast universe of your friendships – that we can again verify tonight – and the outstanding trajectory of your career. To be with you, even for a moment, is to be energized and inspired, to be your best self, a participant in a global community, a citizen committed to change.

Dear Darren, as evident in your leadership of the Ford Foundation, you always see what others do not see – or even, sometimes, refuse to see. You always imagine what could be.

You are an activist, in the truest sense of the word: you remind us that there is no cultural tradition, no theory or history, no academic or political trend we can hide behind when confronting our responsibility as leaders of cultural institutions, and, indeed, as committed citizens.

In fact, you put your tacit elegance, your intellectual rigor, your acute intuition, your generous lucidity, and your stubborn determination in the service of core values hold dear by the French Republic – Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité –, three words that you are living, fighting for, and championing so well on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Order of the Arts and Letters was established in 1957 by the French government to reward those who have made extraordinary contributions to the arts, literature, and culture in France and throughout the world. That, you certainly did – who could possibly deny it? Yet, I think this formulation is too restrictive and does not do justice to your work’s impact in our country: your sage leadership and wisdom have guided us – and continue to guide us – to meaning, to reflection, to call for higher action and a better, fairer world.

Always trying to guide us towards the most righteous outcome, you call us too, indeed, to live up every day to the spirit of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. And for this,

Darren Walker, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.