For Black History Month, the Globe is featuring profiles on the living civil rights leaders who were named Boston “heroes” on the 1965 Freedom Plaza that surrounds the Embrace sculpture.
Edmund Barry Gaither spent his adult career working to expand access to Black art.
Growing up, field trips to museums weren’t a part of the curriculum at the segregated schools he attended in the small town of Great Falls, S.C. He was only exposed to art exhibits while attending Morehouse College in the 1960s.
Back then, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) provided the few opportunities to view Black artists’ works. Gaither would stroll through the art galleries in the Atlanta University Center’s library and admire pieces crafted by Black artists from around the country.
His time at Morehouse shaped him as he studied literature, history, and visual arts. He sees access to Black art as “the only truthful way to tell our story,” he said.
“There isn’t an American art without African American art. ...There’s something that’s integral to it,” he said. “The more we move towards understanding that, the more nearly we come to appreciate the humanity of one of the other.”
He came to New England to study at Brown University in Rhode Island for his master’s degree in art history. He ended up staying and becoming a curator for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1969.
By the next year, the MFA unveiled an exhibition Gaither curated composed of 158 works by 70 Black artists. The exhibition, “Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston,” was the largest group display of contemporary Black art at that time, according to the museum’s website. Gaither would go on to help establish eight exhibitions for the museum.
In 1969, he became a founding director and the curator for the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Roxbury. Through founder Elma Lewis’s vision for the center, Gaither helped it grow from a concept to an institution with collections of more than 3,000 objects and exhibitions of African American art. Today, he continues to serve as director of NCAAA.
Gaither’s influence on the art scene extends beyond Boston. He chaired the panel that selected the artist for the bronze bust statue of Martin Luther King Jr. that was unveiled in the US Capitol Rotunda in 1986. He traveled the world to work in cities from Toronto to Paris. He developed a course on African American art and taught it at universities throughout the country, including Harvard College.
Gaither was also on the committee that selected the design for “The Embrace,” which is a 20-foot tall monument commemorating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King in Boston. He believed it was time to do something bold with sculpture and for the piece to be larger than life-sized.
“I’m happy for something that was more abstract, that was more freed from traditional form and acceptance, that requires that you take a new perspective,” he said, “because you can see the elements that are figurative in this piece. But you have to accept a different perspective in order to realize that.”
Gaither said his selection as one of the Boston heroes whose name was inscribed in the 1965 Freedom Plaza that surrounds “The Embrace” was an affirmation of his life work. But it also reminds him that there is so much more work that still needs to be done.
“I would like to think of my contribution as laying a foundation for a future growth and enhancement of understanding of the place of Black contribution to America, to Boston, and to the community from which we sprang,” he said.
Lauren Booker can be reached at email@example.com.