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Darren Walker is a leader in philanthropy and social justice in the US, currently serving as president of the Ford Foundation. Born in Texas, he studied law before working in finance, joining the Ford Foundation in 2010 and becoming president in 2013. The foundation focuses on addressing inequality, promoting human rights and fostering inclusive economies, and Darren’s initiatives include advancing racial and gender equity, supporting artists and cultural organisations, strengthening democracy, and addressing climate change. Darren Walker’s leadership, strategic thinking, and dedication to social change have earned him widespread recognition from allies involved in the project of creating a more equitable and joyful society.

Interview by Theaster GatesPortrait courtesy Ford Foundation

THEASTER GATES Man, how are you?

DARREN WALKER I am blessed, though living during these wretched days. I live in an era of attempts to dismantle 60 years of social progress. We must resist; we must not capitulate or give in or give up to those who are seeking to dismantle all the hard work, blood, sweat and tears that our forebears expended so that we could get here. We’ve got work to do, Theaster!

TG Every season it changes.

DW Yes. That forces me to learn more, to look more. But at the beginning, I started going to museums and galleries to see how artists were thinking and expressing themselves. That was the real motivation.

TG We are an artist and an activist. I want to talk about the things that you love, and the projects and artworks that move you personally. Could you speak to the relationship that you have with objects, and about the friendships you’ve developed over the years with creative people?

DW Art nourishes my soul. Art heals me when I feel broken. When I feel depleted or dejected, I have to engage in looking at, exploring or excavating the meaning of great art. I experienced this a couple of weeks ago when I was in New York City on a weekend in the summer, and I was feeling a little depressed. I decided to take a walk up to the Metropolitan Museum and go to the roof to see Lauren Halsey’s work. I needed to see Lauren’s work on that beautiful sunny day when I could take in her genius against the backdrop of the majestic New York City that I love. I left energised and feeling much more hopeful than I had when I walked into that museum. That’s what art can do for you. For me, I need stimulation; I need to be engaged; I need to be provoked to get out of my own way. Artists hold an exalted place and space in my imagination and my life.

TG One day I was in New York at the Met, I decided to bump up the stairs and get around, and lo and behold, there’s Lauren in line getting a Coke. I was able to honour Lauren in the majestic space that she made for us, while hundreds of New Yorkers were up there having a close encounter with East LA and with Compton, and then as a more mature artist – I won’t call myself old – I was able to congratulate her and smile with her and talk through the struggles of creating ambitious works of art that come with an ounce of blood. To be able to say to Lauren, this is one of many great moments that you’ll have and I’m happy to be here with you and Thelma [Golden, chief curator at the Studio Museum], it was like three generations of artistic creativity on that roof. I couldn’t have been more thankful for that.

DW That ecosystem could not have existed even 20 years ago, because this country was unwilling to acknowledge the brilliance and the creativity that lies within the African-American community. The talent, the leadership, the path-breaking work that the three of you have done would not have been acknowledged because the gatekeepers 20 years ago were primarily white men who had a vested interest in sustaining and compounding their privilege, power, and access. The good news is we are dismantling that system that ignored or erased the creative genius of African Americans, and we are replacing it with one of inclusion, which understands that we must always be about excellence. America cannot have excellence in the arts without centring the contributions of African Americans to that canon.

TG You are one of the key frontrunners in helping people understand how very important equity is not only in terms of economic justice but also artistic justice, in the museum – directorship, curatorial. There is a way in which equity has been lost in those arenas and the work that you’ve been doing for decades, in the varying roles that you’ve played, has made the playing field very different. Black people use the arts to continue traditions – to demonstrate themselves as people of distinction, to parade and peacock. Not everybody goes to the MoMA or the Met, but on a Sunday we are no less swaggy uptown in Harlem. I want to ask a question about ceremony and taste, the rituals that you come to love or use. How was your taste born? You have this beautiful phrase, “Honey, I’m Gucci every day.”

DW I believe that it is possible to be a warrior for justice and be stylish, to love fashion, to love luxury, and want to use all of that as a way of dignifying our existence in this place called America where we have not always been welcomed. I am unapologetically a believer that beautiful things help lift us up. I grew up poor and I remember the first time I put on a cashmere sweater in 1978 as a freshman in college. I had a scholarship that provided me with a generous stipend and I bought my first Ralph Lauren Shetland sweater. It was a crew neck, navy blue. I will never forget that sweater. When I was a boy, my grandmother was a domestic, and occasionally she would bring me hand-me-downs from the boy in the household – Izod shirts, a wool peacoat. I remember the first time I put that wool peacoat on. Fashion can transform us. It can elevate us. It can help us dream and it can help manifest our dreams. Who doesn’t want as an adult to be festooned in the most beautiful and luxurious clothing? I certainly do. When you look at the arc of civil rights of the leaders in the African-American community, I think of Frederick Douglass, the most photographed man in the 19th century, who always looked sharp. Douglass was the first African American to tell us that how we looked mattered. That was passed on to W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, all the way through to James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin. Look at those photographs of the martyrs – Belafonte, Dr King, Coretta Scott King – look how they were dressed. I believe there is a role for fashion, a role for style, and we Black folk have been exemplary style setters.

TG The last time I was at your apartment, I remember going to your bedroom, and seeing some customised initials on your sheets. Now listen, I don’t want to get all in your little bedroom, Darren, but what I will say is that anybody can go to an Armani store, but there are some things that a brother knows.

DW Theaster, you too can have your own custom Leontine Linens. You need to go to New Orleans to Leontine Linens on Magazine Street and see what luxury really looks like. Now the reason Leon- tine Linens are so important is because of the diversity and range of styles that they have, and the different ways in which Egyptian cotton can be processed luxuriously. But most importantly, for me, their manufacturing facility is located in Appalachia and Kentucky and when you receive your Leontine Linens package, there is a note signed by the women who were a part of the handmade production process. The variation of monograms, of stitching, is mind-boggling. Like beauty, like love, you can like luxury and you could demand at the same time to have more justice, more fairness, in this country.

TG I love this story because I’m a craftsman and more importantly, I’m a lover of craftsmen. When I say craft, what I mean is people who know how to do things excellently. Craft is a discipline that requires that you continue to learn, and desire to be excellent. I see that self-improvement as part of your disposition and I’ve heard you talk about being young in the South, and the kind of disciplinary measures your mom would put you through to ensure that you were always self-improving.

DW As a boy, I was rambunctious. Energetic, yes. Emotional. One of the things my fourth-grade teacher Mrs Majors taught me was the need for self-control. I got into a fight one day – the boy called me a sissy, and I slugged him, and we started rolling around on the floor and the hall aiders came out and pulled me apart. She pulled me into the boy’s bathroom and said, clean yourself up, and when you finish, I’ll be waiting for you in the hall. I went out in the hall. A few minutes later, she took me to her classroom and sat me down and said, now listen to me. Little Negro boys who cannot control themselves will be put in special education in this school, and bad things happen to little Negro boys who can’t control themselves. Now, one might say that Mrs Majors was being a racist and today, some might say she deserved to be fired. Mrs Majors loved me. She was preparing me for the world out there. So that was a turning point for me, Theaster – Mrs Majors is always in my head because there are so many times when I am confronted with news that enrages me and I want to do or say something that would not be appropriate or productive. But my childhood was when I learned to abrogate and negotiate the reality of being a queer little Black boy in a rural place that was not always welcoming to people like me. I have fond memories and experiences that prepared me to live the life I live today.

TG This is the most complicated question, the question about loss. We both have experienced loss recently and I don’t have a church, I don’t have a community of people the way I did growing up that could wrap their arms around me when my mom and dad died. I needed my extended community of friends. When your partner passed, I remember thinking, we’re not as close as I would like to be, to offer the kind of friendship and love I wanted to offer, though my heart went out to you. Tell me about the ways that you learned to heal, because I think I’m still somewhere in that process.

DW Well, thank you. I felt your warm embrace. I lost my beloved David, and it is still a very difficult thing to articulate the depth of my grief in part because of the way it happened – we were together laughing, having a wonderful morning, and three hours later, I was sitting in an ER with his expired body, holding his hand. I was profoundly disabled by the loss of my David because he was my anchor. I met David when I was 31 and we were together for 27 years. I could never have imagined the depth of my anguish, grief and pain. Living through that was made possible because of the many friends I had, including you, and David’s family, my own family, my faith. That I had incredibly important work to do made a material difference in my life and in the world. I had a fantastic grief counsellor, and she and I went about a plan for healing. As with you and the tremendous losses you have recently experienced, we both know that that process is never complete, that we have good days and bad days. As time passes, there are fewer bad days, but the bad ones are still bad. I live with the memory of my David and the laughter and the joy and the light he brought to my life. ◉