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Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth Alexander – poet, educator, memoirist, scholar, and arts activist – is president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the nation's largest funder in arts and culture, and humanities in[…]

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: I do not think that the arts are dependent on philanthropic efforts, which might sound to be at odds with what I do for a living but I think that what is remarkable about the arts is that you cannot kill them. They will not die. I think of this particularly with the art form that I come out of, poetry.

It actually is beautifully partnered by various social media because it can travel and be sent out in a way that fiction is a little bit trickier because fiction is a longer form. It simply takes longer to take it in. Poems on Instagram, on Twitter, there's a way that poems can move and social media is a great companion for that.

Poetry costs nothing. It is barely remunerated, and for thousands of years poetry has told us who people are, who civilizations are, who communities and tribes are. So I think that's part of what is kind of astonishing about the power of art is its durability. I think though that what philanthropy can do is encourage and enable and especially with other kinds of art forms that do have some costs involved. So if you think, for example, about public art projects. Public art projects need cities and zoning and materials and people to move large objects so that they can make these public artworks. That is something that I think philanthropy can do remarkable things about.

Measuring success in the arts is sometimes a tricky business because the influence and impact of the arts is sometimes felt in the immediate, right. So when you behold a great work of art, when you finish reading an extraordinary book, when you listen to a stirring piece of music, you have an immediate feeling. But then there is another question that is sometimes longer term and much more difficult to measure about why that matters, about how it makes its way through the world, about how it finds its durability.

So I think that what I want to work on with my colleagues is thinking about, is there a specialized way of thinking about impact with regard to the arts that again measures it on its own terms? There are some really interesting studies that, for example, look at economic development in neighborhoods that have a presence of artists who are working to make their own dynamic presence felt in their neighborhoods and that's actually good for economic development. So that might be one way we could think about it. But I don't want that to be the only way that we think about it because to me it comes down to the very simple question: Would you like us to live without art? And I think that when we understand that we would all be bereft without art and culture the question then becomes, how can we find not only the best but also the best that, again I'm thinking very much about which voices have not been heard as much?Which voices have not been supported as much and which voices help us understand the complexity of our humanity speaking specifically, you know our work is global but speaking particularly in the American context. What is the American story, and how do we listen to its many aspects?