Cultural Kingmaker at the Ford Foundation

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1953

Sometimes the most significant successes of even the biggest foundations come down to one person.

By the 1960s, the Ford Foundation was the largest entity making grants to the arts in the U.S. The man who had made most of that happen was McNeill Lowry. Under Lowry’s leadership, the foundation expended millions in arts funding, became the first foundation to support dance, and offered lifelines to scores of individual creators. The amounts were small by Ford standards, but huge to the organizations and individuals who received them. In 1957, $105,000 produced an entire year of performances by the New York City Opera. In 1963, eight major ballet companies were bolstered with $7.7 million, because Lowry had decided dance was underfunded.

Lowry’s influence was particularly crucial in locating the individual artists the foundation funded. Lowry, who started running Ford’s arts and humanities program in 1957 and became a vice president in 1964, had the final say on who got the money and who didn’t. This practically made him America’s kingmaker in the 1950s and ’60s when it came to cultural production.

With individualized grantmaking, a savvy personal touch was needed more than a rigorous application process. An example: novelist James Baldwin was in his mid-thirties and struggling financially in 1959, when he was having difficulty finishing Another Country. He exchanged letters with Lowry on his literary ambitions for the novel. Very shortly after, Baldwin received word that he’d been awarded a two-year, $12,000 fellowship from Ford. He completed Another Country and published it in 1962, thanking Lowry in an impassioned note saying that the book might have been torn up and abandoned absent the timely grant.

Playwright Tom Stoppard was another writer who received a Ford grant at a crucial time. His fellowship allowed him to spend five months in a Berlin writer’s studio where he wrote the first draft of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The play made Stoppard’s career, and won a Tony award.

McNeill Lowry retired in 1974, perhaps the most influential figure of his generation in arts philanthropy.

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