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.

Walker has served on the boards of other arts institutions, including those of the New York City Ballet and Carnegie Hall, but never on the board of an art museum. When asked why now, and why the National Gallery of Art, which has never had an African American trustee or one who, like Walker, is openly gay, the first thing he says is: Because it’s free.Walker, 60, then recounts a memory, from his boyhood in rural Texas, when a teacher showed a movie reel of crowds gathering at the National Gallery to see the Mona Lisa, on loan from France as part of a cultural exchange in 1963.

“I remember seeing a black-and-white panorama of the lines waiting outside the original [John Russell] Pope building, wrapping around the block to see the Mona Lisa, and Mrs. [John F.] Kennedy at the opening,” Walker says. The museum, he adds, “represents all that is great and noble and aspirational about America. The collection, the range of work, the diversity of work, its placement in Washington.”

Walker, who earned a law degree from the University of Texas and worked early in his career in the corporate world for the Union Bank of Switzerland, sometimes speaks about the arts in ways that echo the language of excellence and aspiration in the Kennedy years. But he also uses another art discourse that sounds more like the rhetoric of the Johnson administration — about access, opportunity, fairness, dignity and openness. He’s lived his life deeply in the arts, with a sense of awe ofits power and a personal gratitude for helping him transform “the violence, the dysfunction, the deprivation” of his Texas childhood into a lifelong mission in philanthropy. But he also expresses an urgent concern for how the arts are distributed in America — who can afford to attend performances and exhibitions, where they are located and, most important, who are the gatekeepers who decide what is exhibited, performed and acknowledged as art.

If Walker wasn’t fluent in both vocabularies — a language of passion and a language of policy — it’s unlikely he would have committed money to save the Detroit Institute of Arts, which for much of its 20th-century history was perceived as an elite, “white” institution in a city with a population that is now almost 80 percent African American. The Detroit decision was an early example of how Walker seeks to connect the arts to other issues, to work across institutional, disciplinary and public-private boundaries to make the arts central to a range of larger social concerns.

His appointment to the National Gallery board could be one of the most transformational appointments in the museum’s history.

'A New Gospel of Wealth'

Born in 1959, Walker, the son of a single mother, was one of the first students to participate in the Head Start program, a core element of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty agenda. Walker has also lived through enormous change in the arts in the United States, from the Cold War-era belief that they were an essential part of an international war of ideas to an extended period of post-Cold War disarray, with shrinking audiences and the deliberate politicization of the arts during the so-called culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s. Now, Walker may be helping to usher in a new moment, a new consensus, to replace the existential crisis of purpose the arts have experienced for a quarter-century or more.

“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,” he says. “If we want a more just society, we’ve got to have a more empathetic society.”

In his Americans for the Arts lecture in 2017, Walker connected the arts directly to the vitality of American democracy. And as he has sharpened and intensified the Ford Foundation’s focus on inequality, he has kept the arts central to that mission. When Walker deaccessioned the foundation’s old art collection — there was a significant map collection, he says, but also “a lot of drawings, Picasso and Renoir and, you know, ‘school of Titian’ ” that didn’t reflect the foundation’s 21st-century priorities — he reinvested the money in art by living artists, including women and people of color.

And late last year, Walker released a book that borrowed its subtitle from an 1889 essay by Andrew Carnegie: “From Generosity to Justice: A New Gospel of Wealth.” The book’s “new gospel of wealth” challenges contemporary philanthropists to move past ideas about charity and top-down noblesse oblige benevolence to address root causes of our social ills, especially injustice and economic inequity. But it also offers an important and holistic new argument, sometimes implicit, for the importance of the arts. They are not simply a social need, among others, competing for philanthropic dollars, but essential to the moral vision that animates genuine philanthropy.

How is this vision likely to play out when Walker begins regular participation on the NGA board with his first meeting at the end of themonth? Slowly, say people who know him.

“Darren is far too intelligent and thoughtful to be going there with a specific agenda,” says Clive Gillinson, executive director of Carnegie Hall, where Walker is on the board. “Anyone who is a deep thinker, which he definitely is, knows you get to know an organization and understand it and become part of conversations about where the future is going. He’ll come in to learn, first and foremost.”

Henry Timms, president and chief executive of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where Walker is a regular patron, puts it slightly differently: “The thing I’ve enjoyed most about Darren is that he is clearly someone with an agenda, which is appropriate and necessary, but he is also trying to shift the narrative around the people he is working with.” Timms, who considers Walker an invaluable adviser, says Walker is interested in dialogue, willing to be challenged and willing to challenge in turn.

“I think he is an important figure because he is challenging the sector to think about how we are positioned at the heart of society,” Timms says, stressing Walker’s insistence on the centrality rather than the peripheral nature of art, which has practical consequences.

“He is casting a broader umbrella, framing all of this around the justice agenda. What he is trying to do is not just multidisciplinary in the arts world, but multi-constituental.”

Redesigning the system

Walker’s National Gallery appointment may be the first time he has joined a museum board, but he hasn’t been shy about sharing his views on museum culture. Last summer, when artists and activists were protesting the presence on the Whitney Museum’s board of Warren Kanders — whose company, Safariland, produces tear gas used against migrants on the U.S.-Mexican border — Walker stepped into the fray with a New York Times editorial.

He argued that these conflicts were worsened by inequality, especially the perception that museums tend to serve only the elites. He called for more diverse museum boards, staff and leadership, and encouraged them to look to academic and training programs that prioritize inclusion of new blood when they hire.

Walker also became directly involved in one of the most dynamic exhibitions mounted in this country in years, “Posing Modernity: The Black Model From Manet and Matisse to Today,” which opened in 2018 at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery. The exhibition was curated by Denise Murrell, an independent scholar and African American curator who had struggled to get support for exploring a basic but transformative idea — that the black figures in centuries of European art were not merely decorative and anonymous, and that a new history of art could be written by acknowledging their full humanity.

“Denise sent me her dissertation in advance, which I skimmed, and I thought, ‘This is amazing,’ ” says Walker, who met with Murrell and introduced her to key players in the art world.

“The whole thing simply would not have happened if Darren had not personally stepped up and brought the Ford Foundation into this in 2014,” Murrell says. She went through the usual application process and was granted funds to travel and research the show, which was a critical success, both in New York (where top museums such as the Metropolitan and Museum of Modern Art weren’t interested) and in Paris, where it was seen at the prestigious Musee d’Orsay. In November, the Met announced that it had hired Murrell as a curator.

Walker plays down his direct role in that exhibition, even as others credit him with making it happen. Instead, he stresses a larger moral from the tale: “If Denise had been, you know, a gatekeeper, we would have developed a completely different narrative about modern art.”

And now Murrell is among the gatekeepers. Walker is aware of all the tensions and ironies in the system he is working to change, and he tends to speak in terms of reformation rather than revolution.

“We will always need a system, or it’s chaos,” he says. “The question is, who will organize that system? Who are the gatekeepers in that system? Who defines what is worthy and unworthy?” Walker isn’t afraid to use such words as excellence and mediocrity. But he wants to enfranchise more people, from across the democratic spectrum, in making those distinctions.

Walker has a curious and characteristic cadence to his speech — he is given to occasional bursts of emphasis and stress. If you ask him an either/or question, he is likely to answer, emphatically, “BOTH.”

So, what kind of art does America need now? A reflective art that looks dispassionately at our world, that brings us to reasoned awareness of how far we have fallen from our ideals? Or an art of jeremiads, that compels us to confront our failings without escape or excuses?

“BOTH.”

Then Walker elaborates: “Both are essential to a healthy democracy. I believe that it is healthy to have art that reflects beauty and ideas that are romantic and aspirational. And at the same time, art that is filled with rage and anger and that doesn’t let you out of the room.”

That’s not equivocation. It’s the only reasonable answer.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the “Posing Modernity” exhibition. It was titled “Posing Modernity: The Black Model From Manet and Matisse to Today,” not “Posing Modernity: The Black Model From Monet and Matisse to Today.” This version has been updated.