The Mellon Foundation, a not-for-profit corporation under the laws of the State of New York, was formed on June 30, 1969, through the consolidation of two existing foundations—the Avalon Foundation and the Old Dominion Foundation:
- The Avalon Foundation had been established in 1940 by Ailsa Mellon Bruce, daughter of Andrew W. Mellon.
- The Old Dominion Foundation had been established in 1941 by Paul Mellon, son of Andrew W. Mellon.
When the two foundations were consolidated, our founders adopted the name "The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation" to honor their father. At the end of 1969, Mellon's assets totaled $273 million. By the end of 2020, the total endowment was approximately $8.2 billion; annual grantmaking came to approximately $417 million.
Elizabeth Alexander (2018 to Present)
Decorated poet, educator, memoirist, scholar, and cultural advocate – Elizabeth Alexander is president of the Mellon Foundation, the nation's largest funder in arts and culture, and humanities in higher education. With more than two decades of experience leading innovative programs in education, philanthropy, and beyond, Dr. Alexander builds partnerships at Mellon to support the arts and humanities while strengthening educational institutions and cultural organizations across the world.
Prior to joining the Foundation, Dr. Alexander served as the director of Creativity and Free Expression at the Ford Foundation, shaping Ford's grantmaking vision in arts and culture, journalism, and documentary film. There, she co-designed the Art for Justice Fund—an initiative that uses art and advocacy to address the crisis of mass incarceration—and guided the organization in examining how the arts and visual storytelling can empower communities.
Over the course of a distinguished career in education, Dr. Alexander has taught and inspired a generation of students. She was the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University from 2015 until joining the Foundation in 2018. Between 2000 and 2015, Dr. Alexander taught at Yale University, where she was a professor in the departments of African American Studies, American Studies, and English, helping rebuild the school's African American Studies department while serving as its chair for four years. In 2015, she was appointed Yale University's inaugural Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry. At Smith College, Dr. Alexander was the Grace Hazard Conkling Poet-in-Residence and the inaugural director of the Poetry Center. While an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, she was awarded the Quantrell Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.
An author or co-author of fifteen books, Dr. Alexander was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize: for poetry with American Sublime and for biography with her 2015 memoir, The Light of the World. Her poetry and essays include Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990–2010 (2010), Power and Possibility: Essays, Reviews, Interviews (2007), American Sublime (2005), The Black Interior: Essays (2004), Antebellum Dream Book (2001), Body of Life (1996), and The Venus Hottentot (1990). Accolades for her work include the Jackson Poetry Prize, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, the George Kent Award, the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and three Pushcart Prizes for Poetry. In 2009, Dr. Alexander composed and delivered a poem, "Praise Song for the Day," for President Barack Obama's inauguration. Her latest book, released in 2022, is The Trayvon Generation.
Dr. Alexander earned a BA from Yale University, an MA from Boston University, and a PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania. She holds honorary doctorates from the University of Pennsylvania, Duke University, Yale University, Haverford College, Simmons College, and the College of St. Benedict. Dr. Alexander is Chancellor Emeritus of the Academy of American Poets, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and serves on the board of the Pulitzer Prize.
Earl Lewis (2013–2018). Earl Lewis became the sixth President of the Mellon Foundation in March 2013. Under his guidance, Mellon reaffirmed its commitment to the humanities, the arts, and higher education by emphasizing the importance of continuity and change.
A noted social historian, Mr. Lewis has held faculty appointments at the University of California at Berkeley (1984–89), and the University of Michigan (1989–2004). He has championed the importance of diversifying the academy, enhancing graduate education, re-visioning the liberal arts, exploring the role of digital tools for learning, and connecting universities to their communities.
Prior to joining the Mellon Foundation, Mr. Lewis served as Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of History and African American Studies at Emory University. As Provost, Lewis led academic affairs and academic priority setting for the university.
He is the author and co-editor of seven books, including The African American Urban Experience: Perspectives from the Colonial Period to the Present (with Joe William Trotter and Tera W. Hunter, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); Defending Diversity: Affirmative Action at the University of Michigan (with Jeffrey S. Lehman and Patricia Gurin, University of Michigan Press, 2004); Love on Trial: An American Scandal in Black and White (with Heidi Ardizzone, W. W. Norton, 2001); the award-winning To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans (with Robin D. G. Kelley, Oxford University Press, 2000); In Their Own Interests: Race, Class and Power in 20th Century Norfolk (University of California Press, 1991); as well as the 11-volume The Young Oxford History of African Americans (with Robin D. G. Kelley, Oxford University Press, 1995–1997); and the award-winning book series American Crossroads (University of California Press).
A native of Tidewater, Virginia, Mr. Lewis earned an undergraduate degree in history and psychology from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He has been a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 2008.
In 2015, Mr. Lewis was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Rutgers University-Newark and an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Dartmouth College; he also received an honorary Doctor of Humanities from Concordia College in 2002; Outstanding Achievement Award from the University of Minnesota in 2001; and the Harold R. Johnson Diversity Service Award from the University of Michigan in 1999.
Don Michael Randel (2006–2013). Don Randel is a musicologist who attended Princeton University, where he received bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in music. His scholarly specialty is the music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Spain and France. As a music historian, Mr. Randel is widely published, particularly on medieval liturgical chant, and he has also written on such varied topics as Arabic music theory, Latin American popular music, and fifteenth-century French music and poetry. In 1968, Mr. Randel joined the Cornell University faculty in the department of music. He served for 32 years as a faculty member at Cornell, where he was also department chair, vice-provost, and associate dean and then dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He became provost of Cornell University in 1995. From 2000 until he joined Mellon in 2006, Mr. Randel held the position of president of the University of Chicago. There he led efforts to strengthen the humanities and the arts on campus, as well as a broad range of interactions with the City of Chicago and a further strengthening of the university's programs in the physical and biomedical sciences and its relationship with Argonne National Laboratory. He also led the university's campaign for $2 billion, the largest in its history. Mr. Randel served as the editor of the Journal of the American Musicology Society. He is also editor of the Harvard Dictionary of Music 4th ed., published in 2003, the Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music, published in 1996, and the Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians, published in 1999.
William G. Bowen (1988–2006). Educated at Denison and Princeton Universities, Mr. Bowen joined the Princeton faculty in 1958. An influential labor economist and teacher, he became Princeton's provost in 1967, and served as its president from 1972 to 1988. His achievements at the university include overseeing the transition to coeducation, establishing residential colleges, promoting increased diversity, and invigorating the biological sciences as a major institutional commitment. He was also a driving force behind American higher education's opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa. Mr. Bowen's tenure at the Mellon Foundation was marked by further increases in the scale of the Mellon Foundation's activities, with annual appropriations reaching $220 million in 2000. To ensure that Mellon's grantmaking activities would be better informed and more effective while also following his interest in studying questions central to higher education and philanthropy, he created an in-house research program to investigate doctoral education, collegiate admissions, independent research libraries, and charitable nonprofits. Mr. Bowen's interest in the application of information technology to humanistic scholarship led to a range of initiatives including the Mellon-sponsored creation of JSTOR (a searchable electronic archive of the full runs of core journals in many fields), ARTstor Inc. (a repository of high-quality digitized works of art and related materials for teaching and research), and Ithaka Harbors, Inc. (an organization launched to accelerate the adoption of productive and efficient uses of information technology for the benefit of higher education). Mr. Bowen was the author or co-author of 20 books, including Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education (University of Virginia Press, 2005) with Martin A. Kurzweil and Eugene M. Tobin, which received the American Education Research Association (AERA) 2006 Outstanding Book Award; Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values (Princeton University Press, 2003) with Sarah A. Levin; The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values (Princeton University Press, 2001) with James Shulman; and the Grawemeyer Award-winning The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (Princeton University Press, 1998) with Derek Bok.
John E. Sawyer (1975–1987). After graduating from Williams College and Harvard University, Mr. Sawyer taught economics at Harvard and Yale before serving as president of Williams from 1961 to 1973. At Williams, he oversaw major changes in the college's structure and character, including its transition to coeducation, the elimination of its fraternities, and the provision of greater access for minority and economically less advantaged students. As president of the Mellon Foundation, Mr. Sawyer guided the Mellon's evolution. During his 12-year tenure, Mellon's total annual grants rose from $40 million to $70 million. In addition to continuing Mellon's support of humanistic scholarship and institutions of higher education, Mr. Sawyer promoted the improvement and modernization of the nation's research libraries and cooperation among them. He also provided key leadership in the fields of population studies and ecology. In 1994, following Mr. Sawyer's long-standing interests in multidisciplinary inquiry, Mellon launched a series of seminars designed to promote comparative research on the historical and cultural sources of contemporary developments. This program was named for Mr. Sawyer following his death in 1995.
Nathan M. Pusey (1971–1975). After receiving undergraduate and doctoral degrees from Harvard University, Mr. Pusey taught classics, literature, and history at Lawrence College (now Lawrence University), Scripps College, and Wesleyan University. He served as president of Lawrence College from 1944 to 1953, and of Harvard University from 1953 to 1971. At Harvard, he oversaw the inauguration of new programs particularly in international and area studies, the introduction of need-blind financial aid, the revival of the Divinity School, significant growth in the university's financial assets, and major improvement of its physical plant. Mr. Pusey was a trustee of the Avalon Foundation and a founding trustee of the Mellon Foundation. When Charles Hamilton retired in 1971, Mr. Pusey assumed the Mellon Foundation's presidency. He deepened Mellon's focus on supporting the best in higher education and humanistic scholarship. Mr. Pusey authored The Age of the Scholar: Observations on Education in a Troubled Decade (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963) and American Higher Education, 1945-1970: A Personal Report (Harvard University Press, 1978). In 1963, he also produced what came to be known as the "Pusey Report," a landmark study of theological education.
Charles S. Hamilton, Jr. (1969–1971). A noted expert in labor law and long-serving philanthropic executive, Mr. Hamilton led Mellon in its formative years. In 1935, following his education at Princeton University and Yale Law School, Mr. Hamilton joined the firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, where he became a partner in 1945. He retired from legal practice in 1958. In January 1960, Mr. Hamilton joined the Avalon Foundation as vice president, and was elected president the following year. While administering Avalon's affairs, he also played a leading role in the arrangements that led to the establishment of the Mellon Foundation in July 1969.