The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has announced the appointment of writer, poet, scholar, and arts advocate Elizabeth Alexander as its new president, effective in March.
Alexander will succeed Earl Lewis, who is stepping down at the end of his five-year term to launch a new initiative, the Center for Social Solutions. As president, Alexander will lead efforts to refine Mellon's commitment to the arts and humanities both for social purposes and for their own sake; support the diversification of and inclusive leadership at educational, scholarly, and cultural organizations; and increase the impact of the foundation's support for its vision of a more inclusive America.
Perhaps most widely known for her poem "Praise Song for the Day," which she recited at the 2009 inauguration of former President Barack Obama, Alexander is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir The Light of the World; six books of poetry, including American Sublime and The Venus Hottentot; and two collections of essays, The Black Interior and Power and Possibility. She has been the recipient of many awards, including the Anisfield-Wolf Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, and the George Kent Award.
In 2015, Alexander was appointed director of creativity and free expression at the Ford Foundation, where she co-designed the Art for Justice Fund, a $100 million initiative seeded by philanthropist Agnes Gund to address the inequities of the criminal justice system through art and advocacy. In addition to teaching for fifteen years in Yale University's departments of English, American Studies, and African American Studies — chairing the latter — Alexander has taught at the University of Chicago, Smith College, and New York University and most recently served as the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor in the Humanities in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
"The Mellon Foundation is dedicated to the enrichment of the arts and humanities, both inside and outside of colleges and universities; these practice areas are fundamental to strengthening not only our learning institutions, but also the human spirit," said Mellon Foundation board chair Danielle Allen. "Through her work as a professor and mentor, Elizabeth knows the academic system well, and as an architect of interdisciplinary programs she has deep experience in cultivating partnerships that extend and amplify creative vision. A poet who brings an artist's forward-looking energy to institutional purpose, Elizabeth is the right person for our times as the foundation seeks to widen the community of stakeholders committed to the arts and humanities and to increase the resources dedicated to this work."
"I have lived my entire life with art, culture, and scholarship as companion, guide, and discipline," said Alexander. "I am guided by the justice values of increasing access to the power of higher education to open and strengthen minds, encourage human exchange, and thus transform lives. I am deeply honored to have been selected to lead Mellon, an institution that has been devoted to these areas across its history, and to have been called to the crucial work of building community within and across discipline and institution. The humanities show us deeply who we are and what it means to move through life by the light of cultural vision. I am excited for the work ahead of elevating the truth, beauty, and rigor of the arts and higher learning and making them more accessible to all."