Alison Gilchrest, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

TITLE: Associate Program Officer

FUNDING AREAS: Art history, conservation, museums

CONTACT: ahg@mellon.org, (212) 838-8400

IP TAKE: Gilchrest is a forward thinking art conservator with serious geek cred. 

PROFILE: Alison Gilchrest was a Metropolitan Museum of Art researcher in Paper and Paintings conservation, where she became a go-to expert in things you’ve never heard of, namely infrared reflectography and spectral imaging. Her name can be found on the dedication page of art history books, in gratitude for her contribution of “digital infrared photography.” She's also held stints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art before joining the Mellon Foundation as an Associate Program Officer in 2005.

An interview from her days at the Met reveals a diligent art historian with a passion for thoroughgoing investigation and detailed documentation. She is credited with discovering a hidden image in a Gaugin painting—a figure the artist had painted and then painted over. "Surprises on this scale are rare," she told the interviewer, "but when you find them, they are treasures."

Gilchrest Links Museums with Computers and Information Science

Gilchrest is a member of the Museum Computer Network (MCN), a nonprofit that encourages museums to use computer technologies to serve their cultural mandates, as well as the needs of their own institutions. In 2009, she participated in an MCN conference in Portland, OR, as part of a session called, “Doing More with Less: A Community-Software-Based Technology Strategy Roundtable.” Picture her seated at a table with other arts and technology nerds, in America’s Mecca of progressive hipsterdom, and you’ll start to get a sense of the unconventional woman behind the stock bio.

Gilchrest started out as an eager Bryn Mawr Art History student, and then went on to specialize in Museum Information Systems. While acquiring her masters in Information Science at University of North Carolina, Gilchrest researched “Factors Affecting Controlled Vocabulary Usage in Art Museum Information Systems.” This research later earned her a 2001 Gerd Muelisarn Award of excellence in a paper on art librarianship or visual resources curatorship.

In that award-winning paper, a young, up-and-coming Gilchrest wrote, “The advent of networked resources and the drive to the Internet have sparked a great deal of change in the way museums view their intellectual capital, but the realities of change remain governed by availability of resources.” Translation: Way back in 2001, Gilchrest was champing at the bit for more robust technologies and increased institutional support to democratize museum collections in the Internet era.

Grantmaking Focus: Science, the Web, and Open-Access Software

Gilchrest’s grantmaking focus is a reflection of her own conservation philosophy. She views conservation as a necessarily collaborative process that “involves studying a wide range of materials and techniques, as well as their historical contexts.” She is democratic even in her approach to studying the handiwork of dead painters. Naturally, she wants to foster more collaboration and facilitate the sharing of tools, knowledge, and methodologies among the museum and conservation communities.

At Mellon, Gilchrest participates in all areas of grantmaking for the Art History, Conservation, and Museums department. Her personal area of focus is digital documentation, which means she gets to wear her librarian-for-the-digital-age hat. She also oversees the Mellon’s relationship with graduate training programs in art conservation. Along with her associates, Gilchrest helps to direct funding toward museum programs that strengthen the curatorial and research capacity of institutions large and small. Think programs that establish fellowships, produce scholarly publications, and endow lasting positions.

You can really see Gilchrest’s fingerprints on the grantmaking decisions for conservation programs. Grantees show a strong scientific bent, even establishing whole new scientific departments to train the next wave of conservators. A portion of funds is specifically targeted at photograph conservation, supporting positions and fellowships in this area. The Mellon even has its own Advanced Residency Program in Photograph Conservation at the Rochester Institute for Technology.

Mellon also favors institutions that integrate web technologies with their research, publications, or collections. If you are using creative, accessible, open technologies and platforms to engage an audience beyond your four walls, your grant inquiry should have a fighting chance. Recent grantees include BOMB Magazine’s digital archive and the National Gallery of Art’s ConservationSpace, “an open source web-based software application for managing conservation documentation.”

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