Artist Amy Sherald Shows us the Way

Artists are the most generous people I know, and I can’t think of a more creative philanthropist today than the amazing Amy Sherald.

When the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates invited Amy to paint a portrait of Breonna Taylor in the summer of 2020 for the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, she reached out to Breonna’s mother, Tamika Palmer, to learn more about the 26-year old daughter she had lost to a police killing that March. That personal connection added to what Amy already knew about Louisville, which she had visited in 2017 when a painting of hers was on exhibit at the Speed Museum (where I was Director from 2017-2021).

When Amy started thinking about where the painting would end up, and how, she had a few brilliant ideas and some key allies. Because Breonna Taylor’s life and death had become part of the history of Louisville and part of Black history in America, Sherald wanted the painting to serve both stories. While she did not want the painting to end up on a collector’s wall, Sherald also knew that simply giving the painting away would miss a bigger opportunity (while also devaluing the market for her work). So she reached out to her friend, the actress Kate Capshaw , who reached out to her friend, Ford Foundation CEO Darren Walker, with an idea.

And here’s what happened:

  • The Ford Foundation gave the Speed Art Museum $500,000
  • Capshaw and her husband (director Steven Spielberg, through their Hearthland Foundation) gave $500,000 to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • The two museums created a partnership to share the ownership and display of the portrait, and paid Sherald $1 million to purchase it together.
  • This week Sherald announced that she had given that entire $1 million to the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law to create an annual Breonna Taylor Lecture on Social Inequality, the Breonna Taylor Legacy Fellowships for law students and the Breonna Taylor Legacy Scholarship for undergraduates, providing resources to students devoted to social justice work. Forever.
  • Along the way, the Ford Foundation generously supported the Speed in building an exhibition around the portrait, which we called “Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” creating a new and nationally recognized model for museums to serve their communities at times of trial.

Because we hoped these connections would provide mutual aid and support across Louisville and among Black-led organizations, we introduced the Ford Foundation to Roots101: African American Museum, which applied for and got a large grant supporting its operations. To describe this in a different way: Amy Sherald used her God-given talent to honor the memory of Breonna Taylor with paint; then made sure the work would remain part of our city’s cultural legacy and the nation’s history forever; then doubled the benefits of that gift with an endowed fellowship that will support young leaders at UofL who may help us create a world where tragedies like the killing of Breonna Taylor may never happen.

Can you name a greater act of creative, regenerative philanthropy? I ask not as a challenge – I’d love to hear other examples – but also to thank and honor Amy and SOME of the people who made this virtuous circle of creativity, healing, and love possible: Kevin A. Pemberton, Tamika Palmer, Lonita Baker, Toni Carver Smith, Kate Capshaw, Darren Walker, Thelma Golden, Alice Gray Stites, Allison Glenn, Toya Northington, Adrienne Miller, Kim Spence, Evan McMahon , Kevin Young , Debra McDowell, Cedric Merlin Powell, and many more. You are all heroes.

With all the problems we want to solve, with all the bridges we need to build, maybe we need to be looking to the entrepreneurial, generous creativity of artists not just to make paintings, but to show us a better way forward for all.