By Nadine Matthews, Special to the AFRO

Erin J. Gilbert recalls the wise advice of a former mentor who told her, “Nothing matters besides acquisitions, exhibitions and publication.” In the world of fine art, the value of a piece of art is directly related to these three elements.

Archiving the documents of artists enable publications of research and critique of artwork that potentially elevates its value, the value of the artist and the community that influenced the creation of the work.

Erin J. Gilbert, Black Art Archivist at the Smithsonian. (Courtesy Photo)

Gilbert, who has previously worked at the Studio Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and other similarly august organizations, was recently named Curator of African-American manuscripts at the Smithsonian Institution. It is one division within the revered institution’s Archives of American Art. She will be, according to an announcement by the Smithsonian, “Charged with developing a strategy for substantially increasing the collections of papers of and about African-American artists and will travel nationally to acquire collections.”

A gala event in Chicago in 2009 was the setting for a short conversation which fueled her with the passion for archiving, in particular. She tells the AFRO, “I’d had the great privilege to work with the leadership advisory committee in planning the legends and legacy awards gala where legendary visual artist Margaret Burroughs was honored.”

During the event, Burroughs asked Gilbert what she felt her contributions would be. In fact, they were related to Gilbert’s first-hand experience with Burroughs herself. “Working with her,” Gilbert remembers, “there were documents relating to her founding of the Southside Community Arts center and the DuSable Museum of African American History that needed to be sorted and organized and presented and preserved. I became passionate about understanding the process of archiving artist legacies.”

Burroughs passed away a few days after the party, increasing Gilbert’s sense of urgency to do what she’d come to recognize as crucial work.

Though born in Oakland, California, Gilbert was raised in Malawi in southern
Africa, perhaps most recently known as the country where singer Madonna’s adopted son was born. It was in Malawi Gilbert says she developed an appreciation and her particular eye for art. “I was raised in Malawi. My family left the U.S. when I was nine years old. I would say in Africa, specifically Malawi, is where my understanding the production of works of art in the context of being African-American or of African descent began.”

She returned to the United States as a teen and eventually attended the University of Michigan where she earned a degree in Political Science and African-American studies. “Years later I went away to London,” she explains, “and studied contemporary art at the University of Manchester. Even before my Masters I was working at museums and art galleries and art programs.”

Gilbert, of course, has strong opinions about Baltimore artist and portraitist of First Lady Michelle Obama, Amy Sherald. “We think we know what a portrait of the First Lady should look like and a lot of our assumptions are subverted in that painting. I think that’s exactly what contemporary art is supposed to do, it’s supposed to spark dialogue. Amy should be congratulated.”

Overall, Gilbert sees evidence that African-American art is already being absorbed into the overall canon of American art in general. She points to the esteemed Baltimore Museum as an example.

“I think it’s amazing to see the Baltimore Museum of Art presenting Jack Whitten and presenting Mark Bradford. They are all artists of African descent working in the context of the U.S. and to see an institution like the Baltimore Museum present them, really canonizes all of those.”

Her work at the Smithsonian will serve to expand the process even further. “The canon of art history is created by the Archives of American Art. When this position was posted, and seeing it was specifically about ensuring that artists of African descent who had contributed to the canon and had had major museum exhibitions and major gallery representations, were then included in the Archives of American Art was something that I had been thinking about and talking about for years. It seemed like the perfect path for me and thankfully they thought so as well.”