The Mellon Foundation Is Giving Out $125 Million in Grants for Creative Projects Addressing the ‘Dehumanization’ of U.S. Criminal Justice


The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is putting $125 million toward artistic efforts by and about people impacted by the U.S. carceral system.

The multiyear grant-making initiative, called Imagining Freedom, aims to support “arts and humanities organizations that engage the knowledge, critical thinking, and creativity of millions of people and communities with lived experience of the U.S. criminal legal system and its pervasive forces of dehumanization, stereotyping, and silencing,” according to an announcement from the non-profit organization. Grantees will include institutions that span geographies, generations, and disciplines.

“As artists, writers, and scholars working inside and outside of prison have long known, the arts and humanities uniquely and powerfully counter some of the most enduring, far-reaching, and least seen impacts of mass incarceration in our country and on its individuals and communities,” said Mellon Foundation president Elizabeth Alexander in a statement. 

Installation view of "Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration." Courtesy of MoMA PS1. Photo: Matthew Septimus.

Installation view of “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” Courtesy of MoMA PS1. Photo: Matthew Septimus.

“Through Imagining Freedom,” the nonprofit head went on, “we are supporting artistic, cultural, and humanistic work that centers the voices and knowledge of people directly affected by the carceral system.” The aim, she said, is about “recognizing their full humanity, deepening our shared understanding of the system and its effects, catalyzing us to address the damage it causes, and envisioning and enacting just responses to harm.” 

With Imagining Freedom, the Mellon Foundation puts a name to a project that has been underway for several years. To date, the organization has doled out some $41 million in grant money to multiple projects, including “Marking Time,” a multifaceted project about art and carcerality spearheaded by recent MacArthur “genius” grant winner Nicole Fleetwood. 

Through the program, Fleetwood has published a “Marking Time” book and curated a critically acclaimed exhibition under the same name.  

“The Mellon Foundation,” Fleetwood said in a statement, “understands the critical importance of supporting projects that both document the devastating histories and intricacies of the U.S. carceral state and those that also create future visions, through the arts and humanities, of a society that does not rely on punitive governance and the captivity of its most vulnerable populations.”

Other Imagining Freedom grantees include the Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network, which supports the ongoing education and professional careers of people who have been through the U.S. prison system; Freedom Reads, which aims to build 500-book libraries in every prison in the U.S.; and the Rikers Public Memory Project, a participatory initiative to document the experiences of prison employees, detainees, and their families. 

“We cannot understand who we are as a country if we don’t listen to all of the voices that make up our interdependent communities,” Alexander said.


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