My parents, Allen D. and Carmen M. Christensen, founded The Christensen Fund as a private foundation in California in 1957. Allen was a civil and mining engineer who for several decades led the Utah Mining and Construction Company (later merged with General Electric under different management). An enthusiastic and eclectic traveler and art collector with wide intellectual interests, he brought a focus on non-Western art and the environment to the foundation. Carmen had a strong interest in education as a practicing artist, public school teacher and instructor of studio arts, and collector. They both espoused an international focus and valued creativity, music, the arts, education and the environment, all of which strongly influenced Chrisensen’s original direction. My sister, Karen Christensen and I remained involved with the Fund and steered it to its current configuration in the 1990s and early 2000s. Allen died in 1989 (when I took over as its Executive Director, to serve until 2002) and Carmen in 2010 (when she left the overwhelming share of her estate to The Christensen Fund). I served as Board Chair until 2006 and remain a trustee and the President of the Board.
Beginning in the early 1970s, Christensen embarked on the acquisition of non-Western fine arts and ethnographic artifacts, focusing its efforts to collect the works of Indigenous People in a small number of world regions. For more than twenty years, Christensen was a private Operating Foundation, directing most of its funding to acquiring and loaning some 35,000 pieces of what was then called “Non-Western Art” to major museums for their study and exhibition in Australia, Europe and the United States. These activities contributed to the increasing appreciation in the West of the diversity of what constitutes artistic expression. Christensen’s art collections were eventually donated to the institutions to which they were loaned.
After my father’s death, we worked with a renewed Board of Trustees to gradually make decisions to continue working internationally, focus on grant making instead of art collections, pursue an unusual mission, work in novel ways and in unusual places, and ultimately to empower a remarkably able Staff and Board while giving up control as a family over how the resources are directed. All of these decisions were a reflection of our values, of how we think our foundation can be most effective and transformative, and of the kinds of change we believe we must see in the world in the 21st Century. In the early 2000s, this led to my stepping down as Executive Director and to the hiring of Dr. Ken Wilson in 2002.
Christensen is a small foundation. We believe that our particular strength in the philanthropic field is our approach to furthering diversity, and that we can best contribute by taking on neglected regions and issues and by putting significant resources in the hands of grantees (stewards of landscapes) who have typically never had access to this kind of backing.
Finally, we are always learning about how a foundation can work better in partnership with its grantees without inadvertently coercing them through its funding role. Instead, we try to facilitate their leadership in initiatives that we can support. We’ve realized in the last 18 years that we need to continually evolve and learn from experience if we are to play an effective support role. These lessons are reflected, for example, in our renewed emphasis on better communications around our mission and programs.
We would encourage others to join us in this kind of work and in expressing the hope that by investing in diversity, resilience and innovation, we can turn around the profound threats of our time.