“I truly believe that the arts allow us to see the humanity of other people, and only then can we imagine a more just world. If we want a more just society, we’ve got to have a more empathetic society.”

Darren Walker, philanthropist, member of the National Gallery of Art board



Late in 2014, the city of Detroit emerged from a bankruptcy that had threatened to destroy what little was left of its social bonds. Municipal workers had been told they might lose their pensions, and the city-owned Detroit Institute of Arts faced the possible sale of its entire collection. A “grand bargain” mediated by a U.S. District Court judge saved the city, including most of the promised pensions and all of the museum’s art. Central to making that grand bargain work was Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation.

Walker, who became president of the $13 billion foundation in 2013, pledged $125 million to save the city, an extraordinary sum given the foundation’s total grant budget that year of $565 million. Other major foundations stepped up, too, as did the museum, which agreed to raise $100 million to support the bargain. Its collection was converted from a city asset — subject to peril if the city again fell on hard times — to a nonprofit trust, safe from future claims.

Walker’s explanation for why he contributed so much of his foundation’s money to what many saw as a government problem, in a city with a reputation for in­trac­table problems, was simple: “Detroit is a metaphor for America, for America’s challenges and America’s opportunities.”

In the five years since that crisis, Walker has emerged as one of the country’s preeminent voices for the arts, and social justice, and for new strategies to ameliorate inequality. He has delivered the annual Nancy Hanks Lecture sponsored by Americans for the Arts and was the subject of a glossy profile in the New York Times titled “The Man With the $13 Billion Checkbook.” And in September, the National Gallery of Art announced that Walker would be joining its board, one of the smallest and most exclusive governing bodies in the art world, with only nine members, four of them ex officio positions, including the chief justice of the United States and the secretaries of the Treasury and State departments.