Ford Foundation

Funding transatlantic exchange between the arts and politics

Updated: July 03, 2013

The Ford Foundation’s network of transatlantic elites and domestic collaborations formed an important channel for funding transatlantic cultural exchange and transfer following World War II. The Foundation, the philanthropic legacy of Henry and Edsel Ford of the Ford Motor Company, was established with a twenty-five thousand dollar endowment in 1936. Originally a local charity based in Michigan, the Foundation began as a pragmatic response to a congressional wealth tax and “separated Ford money from Ford management” (Bak 2003). In its heyday, bold personalities and outside influences drew the trust for scientific, educational and charitable purposes, into the cultural Cold War. Washington policymakers in the early 1950s feared that the United States’ post-war economic hegemony would not be sustainable without the improvement of the United States’ image abroad. A collaboration between the US government and several arts organizations launched a wide-ranging image campaign touting the superiority of the West’s intellectual freedom, and challenging negative portrayals of American materialism and mass culture. The Atlantic divide between the old and the new world was retraced as a cultural link, with organizations like the Ford Foundation providing funding for abstract expressionist art, academic journals, the performing arts, and literary exchanges. Altering the reputation of American society abroad meant supporting the arts and humanities on the home front as well. The Ford Foundation soon became an important node in a network that connected artists, politicians, and the intelligence community. 

The Foundation, prior to what its president Henry Ford II recalled as a “turning point in 1948, was grounded in local work. The Ford family maintained a leadership role within the Foundation and, despite turbulent growth, assets grew to $492 million in 1951, making it the world’s largest philanthropic organization. A committee analyzing the future of the foundation published the “Gaither Report,” which recommended specific areas of interest for new foundation projects and the creation of additional offices, including a department for international affairs and a department for the arts and humanities. These changes brought in a network of influential individuals from different disciplines, many of whom had been part of European reconstruction and were interested in United States’ standing abroad. . Paul G. Hoffman, former director of the Economic Cooperation Administration, was named president of the Foundation in 1950. In an article entitled “Hoffman Assembles All-Star Cast to Pilot $500 Million Ford Foundation,” the Christian Science Monitor highlighted Hoffman’s push to hire prestigious colleagues and secure additional funding for the Foundation’s upcoming projects. 

The most influential members of the Foundation’s “all-star cast” were Shepard Stone, John J. McCloy, McNeil Lowry, and Richard Bissell. Stone, whose parents were Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, had previously worked as a European correspondent for the New York Times and as an intelligence officer for the U.S. military government, helping to revive a democratic German press. John McCloy, one of Stone’s colleagues in Germany, previously held the positions of high commissioner in Germany, president of the World Bank, and chairman of Rockefeller’s chase bank. The long-standing relationship between Nelson Rockefeller, trustee and later president of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and McCloy, led to close collaboration between Ford Foundation and the MoMA in the late 1950s. McNeil Lowry was a journalist and navy reservist who had also recently returned from Germany. Richard Bissell had been an administrator for the Marshall Plan in Germany and had ties to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Bissell’s short stint at the Foundation connected Ford Foundation executives to the so-called Georgetown Set, a loose network of previous OSS members and Washington elites in the intelligence community. By the end of the 1950s, the Ford Foundation’s transatlantic network had significantly influenced the field of philanthropy. The Alfried Krupp von Bohlen and Halbach Stiftung, for example, modeled policies after the Foundation’s grant program, keen to reverse the Krupp company’s negative reputation as wartime collaborators in the international arena. 

Beginning in the 1950s, the Ford Foundation’s grants were increasingly tailored to the United States’ policy of containment. They sought to win the hearts and minds of Europe’s intellectual left, while fostering artists, writers, and performers on the home front. The first international grants, awarded to the Free Russia Fund and the Free University Berlin, were indicative of this new focus. George Kennan, a former OSS member and longtime Ambassador to the Soviet Union, was appointed director of the Free Russia Fund. The Fund’s two-way exchange assisted émigrés with integration, while gaining from their research and experience in the Soviet Union. Furthermore, it aimed to put an end to damaging accounts from émigrés of discrimination which could fuel the “Soviet propaganda machine.” A $1,309,500 grant for infrastructure, “boldly designed in modern style” was awarded to West Germany’s Free University Berlin, furthering Hoffman’s agenda to neutralize dissent from Europe and to cultivate a new appreciation for American arts (Free University 1954). 

The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Intercultural Publications program, emerged as the Foundation’s primary grant awardees during the 1950s. The Intercultural Publications program published journals around the world, including the Encounter (UK), das Monat (Germany), Solidarity (the Philippeans), Cuadernos del Congreso por la Libertad de la Cultura (Latin America), FORVM (Austria), and the China Quarterly (Global), as well as the Partisan Review, Kenyon Review, and New Leader in the United States. This platform gave “contemporary American writing and art” a stage, “not [to] defeat the leftist intellectuals in dialectical combat [but] to lure them away from their positions by aesthetic and rational persuasion” (McCarthy 1987). The Congress on Cultural Freedom (CCF) was broader in scope, organizing traveling art exhibitions, academic conferences, theater and dance performances, and academic exchanges. Other prominent supporters of the CCF were the MoMA, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the U.S. government. Conferences in Paris, Berlin, and Bellagio, led by anti-communist writers discussing notions of “modernity,” mass society, and mass cultures were funding by the CCF using Ford Foundation grants. Yet first and foremost, the CCF supported abstract expressionist artists including Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and Mark Rothko. The CCF promoted abstract expressionism because of its apolitical stance; “free enterprise painting” as Nelson Rockefeller described it, contrasted sharply with socialist realism. The traveling New American Painting (1958), Modern Art in the United States (1955), and Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century (1952) exhibitions visited the major cities of Europe, while favorable reviews were printed by the Intercultural Publications. The CCF’s policy of cultural export also applied to the performing arts. Arts and humanities director McNeil Lowry, “perhaps the single most influential patron of the performing arts,” approved grants of $105,000 to the New York City Opera, $7.7 million to be shared by eight domestic ballet companies and $6.1 million to nonprofit repertory theaters (Roberts 2012). 

The target audiences for both projects were the “fellow-travelers” or Moscow sympathizers and European academics of the non-Communist Left. Ford Foundation consultant Richard Bissell (who would later became special assistant to CIA Director Allen Dulles) and Chairman John McCloy conducted a series of financial transactions which enabled Ford Foundation money to be funneled into CIA organized fronts and vice versa. A series of damning articles published in the late 1960s by the New York Times disclosed the origins of funding for the Intercultural Publications and the CCF, linking the Ford Foundation to the CIA, and tracing CIA money through Ford Foundation channels. Several longtime supporters, such as Encounter editor Stephan Spender, resigned from the project altogether. 

Throughout the 1950s and 60s the Ford Foundation’s funding facilitated the CIA’s “long leash” policy in the cultural Cold War. Despite setbacks caused by the exposure of the Foundation’s ties to the CIA, many of the Foundation’s prominent figures, including Shepard Stone, continued to play an important role in transatlantic networking through organizations like the Aspen Institute and the International Association for Cultural Freedom. 

Selected Publications

Ford Foundation. Report of the Study for the Ford Foundation on Policy and Program (Gaither Report). 1949.

Selected Bibliography

Bak, Richard. Henry and Edsel: The Creation of the Ford Empire. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2003.

Berghahn, Volker. America and the Intellectual Cold Wars in Europe: Shepard Stone between Philanthropy, Academy, and Diplomacy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Blumenthal, Sidney. "The Ruins of Georgetown." The New Yorker. October 21, 1996, p. 221.

MacCann, Richard Dyer. "Hoffman Assembles All-Star Cast to Pilot $500 Million Ford Foundation." Christian Science Monitor June 28, 1951, p. 3.

McCarthy, K. D. "From Cold War to Cultural Development: The International Cultural Activities of the Ford Foundation, 1950–1980." Daedalus 116(1), p. 93–117.

N.N. "Free Russia." Washington Post. May 23, 1951, p. 14.

N.N. "Free University of West Berlin, Born in Cold War, Comes of Age." New York Times. June 19, 1954, p. 3.

Roberts, Sam. "Foundation Files Reveal Insights on Culture." New York Times. April 8, 2012, p. C1.

Saunders, Frances Stonor. "Modern Art was a CIA ‘Weapon’." The Independent. October 22, 1995.

Saunders, Frances Stonor. Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War. London: Granta Books, 1999.

Sylvan, F.O.X. "Stephen Spender Quits Encounter." New York Times. May 8, 1967, p.1.

Archival Collections

Ford Foundation Archives. The Rockefeller Archive Center. Sleepy Hollow, NY.

Cite this Entry

MLA Style

"Ford Foundation," Transatlantic Perspectives, 2017, Transatlantic Perspectives. 20 Oct 2017 <http://transatlanticperspectives.org/entry.php?rec=130>

APA Style

"Ford Foundation." (2017) In Transatlantic Perspectives, Retrieved October 20, 2017, from Transatlantic Perspectives: http://transatlanticperspectives.org/entry.php?rec=130