The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has a reputation for moving in mysterious ways. For 45 years, it has steadily handed out money—lots of it—to sustain the humanities and the performing arts. As times have gotten tougher, Mellon’s deep pockets have become increasingly important. The foundation tends to attract an unusual level of anxiety and interest, like a rich uncle whose quirks and whims keep poorer relations on their toes.
Some observers worry that Mellon is too opaque in its operations and guarded about its intentions. It’s not unusual for potential grantees to scramble to put together grant proposals in response to an unexpected call from Mellon, as happened with university presses in 2007, when the foundation invited them to submit ideas for multi-press first-book collaborations. Unlike many other grant makers, it rarely promotes its activities, preferring to stay out of the spotlight. Critics say—usually off the record—that its circle of grantees is too small and that it has disproportionately favored elite colleges and universities. A Chronicle analysis of the last decade and a half of Mellon grants supports that claim. Still, the foundation is widely admired for using its money and clout to reinforce the idea that, in an age of “disruption” and the veneration of science and technology, “the humanities and the arts are central to any life that one should want to live,” as Mellon’s then-president, Don M. Randel, wrote in his 2012 annual report.