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Culture

Support for cultural projects did not come early or easily to the Rockefeller Foundation (RF).  Science and health dominated funding priorities. The arts and humanities were absent at the start of the Foundation and struggled to find a secure place within it. 

Something of Beauty

In 1924 Edwin Embree asked plaintively, “Of what good is it to keep people alive and healthy if their lives are not to be touched increasingly with something of beauty?” [1] He outlined an impressive set of funding possibilities, from arts training programs to international cultural exchange. But a formal program did not take shape until after the 1928 reorganization when RF inherited the humanities program of the General Education Board (GEB).

Agora excavations, Athens (Greece) 1931

Agora excavations, Athens (Greece) 1931

Edward Capps, a distinguished classics professor at Princeton University and a mainstay of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, had worked with the GEB and was chosen to organize the humanities program at RF. Classical archaeology was at the core of the program, which supported excavations at the Athenian Agora and fellowships to train archaeologists. The GEB and then the Foundation sustained a long-term relationship with the American Council of Learned Societies, relying on it to administer fellowship programs and to take on projects that no single university department could manage. Capps was also keen to preserve the documentary record and began RF’s long-standing program of support for leading libraries in Europe, most notably the Bodleian.

While the humanities had acquired a formal home within the Foundation, their place was still not secure. Alan Gregg, Director for the Medical Sciences, questioned the RF commitment to the humanities when so much work remained to be done in science and health, fields in which the RF was already well-versed and internationally respected. In a 1930 memorandum, Gregg argued that “in the present world, with the exception of parts of the United States, I would not consider the greater needs of mankind to be aesthetic and cultural.”[2] He went on to question whether the RF was qualified to critique or assist the cultural development of other nations and indeed whether that type of help would even be welcome.

Broadening the Audience for the Humanities

Capps left the RF in 1930. Under the more imaginative leadership of Director David Stevens (1932-1949) and Assistant Director John Marshall (1933-1962), the humanities program flourished. They moved beyond support for university fellowship programs and archaeological digs in Greece and the Middle East to seek a wider audience for the arts and humanities. They also broadened the focus of humanities programs to include American culture.

While Stevens continued to support the world’s great libraries, Marshall saw merit in exploring new technologies. He pushed for projects that leveraged microphotography, using it to preserve books and documents and to make library and archival holdings more accessible. To Marshall, technology not only provided a useful tool but also proved a fruitful medium of humanistic inquiry. Under Marshall’s guidance, the RF began to fund projects in radio, film and communications studies.

A group in the program entitled 'World Youth Speaks,' New York (N.Y.) 1937

A group in the program entitled 'World Youth Speaks,' New York (N.Y.) 1937

While Marshall focused on mass media, Stevens spent considerable energy on building up important programs in drama and international cultural exchange. Stevens had a specific interest in Asia and fostered cross-cultural language training between Asia and the United States. RF's work in languages was the prologue to the post-World War II interest in area studies.  His support for drama started with assistance in developing regional drama in the United States, including funding to promising regional and community theaters and university drama departments. By supporting regional theater, Stevens hoped to broaden public participation in the humanities.

By 1935 Stevens’ and Marshall’s vision was firmly entrenched at RF. The annual report described a robust program of grants for museums, drama, film and radio and speaks of an international program devoted to “cultural interchange through libraries, the development of understanding with the Far East, and the improvement of the means of international communication.”[3]

The period of the 1930s and early 1940s were arguably the most vigorous years for the humanities at RF.  The Foundation was forced to retreat from most of its European projects as fascist regimes emerged and war threatened the safety of programs and workers. The Foundation moved some scholars to safety and funded emergency projects such as identifying historically important sites so that Allied bombers would not target them. During the war RF sought new cultural opportunities in the Americas. The RF provided developmental aid to South American libraries and gave particular focus to Mexico, where it funded the Colegio de Mexico.

Broadening the Application of the Humanities

Charles B. Fahs took over for Stevens in 1950. He placed particular emphasis on interdisciplinary projects and on work that would use the insights of philosophers, historians and others in the humanities to illuminate larger societal issues. Fahs hoped to discourage esoteric research that had no broader application beyond university walls.

In 1962 the humanities program was consolidated with the social sciences division, the first of many shuffles and reconfigurations of the Foundation’s cultural programs. The arts and humanities were separated, merged, separated and merged again until the arts and humanities programs were terminated in 1999 and replaced by the theme “Creativity and Culture”. This theme was continued until 2005 when it was phased out. 

While the programmatic structure has been fluid, the strategies diverse, and the uses of culture much debated, the RF continued to make important contributions to drama, dance, music and literature. Sometimes the commitment swelled within a broad national context. In the mid-1960s, President George Harrar described the RF’s work as part of a national movement toward “cultural democracy.” It was an era that saw the creation of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, the proliferation of performing arts institutions, and the growth of Area Studies and American Studies within higher education. This national cultural efflorescence continued to animate the Foundation’s cultural programs in the 1970’s, especially its fellowship programs for individual artists and scholars.

In 1980, the Foundation sponsored a national commission, led by Richard Lyman, which issued a report, “The Humanities in American Life.” It argued for their importance in building American values and community. In response, the RF funded humanities programs in schools, museums and other public institutions; it supported television and film projects; and it funded rising scholarship about American ethics and ethnicities. In the 1990’s, international concerns characterized the Foundation’s cultural programs, using the arts as an instrument for connecting Americans to nations they knew and to cultures they needed to understand better. Even through reorganization processes, the Foundation’s domestic desire to foster understanding of American cultures in all their diversity and its global aim to use culture as a means of international reconciliation remained strong. Although no longer a formal division within the Foundation, the RF continues to support the arts through the NYC Cultural Innovation Fund which funds artists and cultural institutions across New York City.


[1] Edwin Embree, Gedney Farm Conference, January 18-19, 1924, Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), Series 900, Box 22, Folder 165.

[2] Memorandum by Alan Gregg, October 27, 1930, RAC, RG 3, Series 911, Box 1, Folder 1.

[3] The Rockefeller Foundation, Annual Report 1935 (New York: The Rockefeller Foundation, 1935) 261. (Link to PDF on Rockefeller Foundation Website)