Arts and Ideas
Mariët Westermann, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Promise and Perils of the Public Humanities Pivot


Mariët Westermann
Executive Vice President
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Mariët Westermann is executive vice president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where she oversees the grantmaking and research programs. In her role she has created initiatives in graduate education reform; partnerships between community colleges and research universities; research on the value of liberal arts education; support for refugee scholars and artists; and arts and cultural heritage research and preservation.

Before joining the Mellon Foundation in 2010 Westermann was the first provost of New York University Abu Dhabi, charged with developing the campus and overseeing the curriculum design and faculty recruitment. At NYU, she had previously served as director and Paulette Goddard Professor at the Institute of Fine Arts. She was associate director of research at the Clark Art Institute and first received tenure at Rutgers University.

A historian of Netherlandish art, Westermann is the author of A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic 1585-1718 (1996), The Amusements of Jan Steen: Comic Painting in the 17th Century (1997), Rembrandt - Art and Ideas (2000), and numerous articles. She has edited five books, including Anthropologies of Art (2005). Her extensive work with museums includes her Rijksmuseum Dossier: Johannes Vermeer (2004) and the curatorship of Art and Home: Dutch Interiors in the Age of Rembrandt (Denver Art Museum and Newark Museum, 2001). She is preparing an exhibition and book on Gardens of Eden.

Westermann earned a BA in History at Williams College and a PhD at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. Her research has been supported by the American Philosophical Society, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, Clark Art Institute, and National Endowment for the Humanities. She is a trustee of MASS MoCA, the Little Red School House in New York City, the International Alliance for Heritage Protection in Conflict Zones (ALIPH), and the Institute of International Education and its Scholar Rescue Fund.


At a time when the humanities appear to be losing prestige—as measured by declining enrollments and skeptical views expressed by public officials, parents, and students—humanists and their institutions are seeking to manifest the worldly utility of the humanities to societies and individuals. These civic engagement activities are usually captured within the broad sphere of activity designated as the Public Humanities. The Public Humanities movement updates a long tradition of connecting academic knowledge to the communities in which institutions of higher education are located. Much of this work is exciting to faculty and students and of genuine benefit to the participating organizations and community members. This talk will describe some of the most promising current efforts to bring humanities research into wider worlds, and also ask what risks for the humanities may be attached to the enthusiasm with which universities are channeling their commitment to the humanities in the direction of immediate and evident public value.


Sponsored by the Mahindra Humanities Center, Houghton Library, and the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.

Free and open to the public. Seating is limited.

  • Click here to view a poster promoting this event.