The Art of Being Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem

Thelma Golden. (Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)
Thelma Golden. (Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)

If Thelma Golden didn’t exist, you would want to invent her. As director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, Golden brings her unique passion, commitment, style and laser-focus to every project she touches.

Being so good at what one does almost always stems from true love, and Golden has always been smitten with art. “When I was about 10 years old, a family friend gave my brother and I the board game Masterpiece, which involved figuring out who had stolen a great work of art,” the Queens-born Golden told theGrio. “The game included cards that represented the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, and those deeply engaged me in the idea of a museum.”

However, it was her elementary teacher, Lucille Buck, who really brought her into the study of art history. “Mrs. Buck was an art aficionado and felt strongly that we should not only visit museums, but also learn about the art, artists and artworks we were going to see before our visits. She began my lifelong love of learning about art.”

Golden takes the art world by storm

Armed with a B.A. in Art History and African-American Studies from Smith College, Golden actually started her career at the Studio Museum in 1987, prior to joining the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1988. She spent ten years at the Whitney. Her first big exhibition as curator was the 1993 Whitney Biennial (always a provocative seasonal show), but she really made her mark in 1994 when she organized the controversial exhibition Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art.

The show ruffled the feathers of black and white viewers — and critics — alike, but opened up new dialogues. Golden says that in many ways, it was her dream show. “By having been fortunate enough to do that so early on in my career, it has really freed me to be truly curatorially curious. I had the great advantage to make an exhibition so wholly influential to my thinking and the ideas that I was engaged with that it has let me, in the intervening twenty years, follow my mind and my heart around the art and artists that I love.”

Thelma’s golden career arc

Golden also served as director of the Whitney Museum at Phillip Morris before returning to the Studio Museum in 2000 as deputy director for exhibitions and programs. Since 2005, after taking over for Lowery Stokes Sims, Thelma has been in her current position and has curated many critically-acclaimed shows for the Studio Museum. Chris Ofili: Afro Muses; Black Romantic; Freestyle; Frequency;Glenn Ligon: Stranger; Martin Puryear: The Cane Project; and Isaac Julien: Vagabondia have all come into being under her direction.

While there are many extremely influential and accomplished black women in the art world, such as Valerie Cassel Oliver, senior curator at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston; Kellie Jones, art historian, curator, and author; Kinshasha Conwill Holman, an arts, museum, and management consultant; Corrine Jennings, owner of the seminal gallery Kenkeleba House; Lowery Stokes Sims, curator at the Museum of Arts and Design, and gallerist June Kelly — just to name a few – Thelma Golden has managed to become a high-visibility rock star in this arena.

Considered by many to be one of the most powerful women in the high culture sphere, she has truly established the Studio Museum as a leading source for contemporary African-American art. It has been a steady evolution since its inception in 1968.

The evolution of the Studio Museum

Studio Museum of Harlem“When the museum was founded it was with the very powerful idea that the exclusion of African-American artists from the canon of American art needed to be challenged and changed,” Golden told theGrio. “The museum’s founding principle was to create the possibility to show innovative and important works of art and to create exhibitions and programs that brought art and culture by black artists to the community and the art world at large. That continues to be our mission, though the art and culture worlds have evolved, Harlem has evolved, and the nature of how people see museums has evolved. That’s what’s exciting about the Studio Museum! Since its founding it has been a transforming and transformative institution.”

Walking through the museum, I often wonder what elements have to come together to put up a show, what makes it finally click.

“First and foremost, curating exhibitions is about art and artists. I always select objects for an exhibition in conjunction with the artist [or artists] if possible,” Golden pointed out. “An exhibition is in many ways a series of conversations. Between the artist and viewer, curator and viewer, and between the works of art themselves. It clicks when an exhibition feels like it has answered some questions, and raised even more.”

A day in the life of an art world star

Along with her husband, Nigerian-born designer Duro Olowu (who lives in London), the pair cut a wide and glamorous swath through both the cultural and fashionable circles of New York. What is a day in the life of Thelma Golden like?

“My days vary so much that it’s hard to say, but they always begin with me checking in with my husband in London and checking out the day’s news on multiple platforms,” she explained.

“I often have an early morning phone call with some of my amazing board members to talk museum strategy. I try to fit in some yoga or rebounding before I go off to the museum’s offices. While I’d love to say that I spend all my time at the museum talking to artists and hanging up art, the reality is that my days are varied and are spent in the process of creating the opportunity for the life of the museum with our amazing staff and the many people who support us and make our work happen.”

The message in her mission

One of Golden’s missions is to encourage and promote emerging artists as well as highlight the works of the past generations. Right now her attention is focused on this year’s artists in residence at the Studio Museum, Steffani Jemison, Jennifer Packer and Cullen Washington, Jr., who will be featured in the upcoming summer exhibition Things in Themselves, curated by the museum’s assistant curator, Lauren Haynes.

In addition, Golden is looking ahead to autumn.

“Also coming this fall are two exhibitions that feature up-and-coming artists as well as some legendary historic figures: Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, organized by Valerie Cassel Oliver for the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston and installed at the Studio Museum by assistant curator Thomas J. Lax; and The Shadows took Shape, an exhibition exploring Afrofuturism organized by assistant curator Naima J. Keith and independent curator Zoe Whitley,” she said.

Engaging with African-American fine art

I enjoy visiting the Studio Museum because in addition to learning about new artists, I discover older artists whose work I might not have been familiar with. Short of moving into the museum, Golden has some excellent advice about the best way we can school ourselves on African-American Art.

“Read! Look! Engage! Of course you are exactly right. The first way to learn about artists of African descent is to spend time in museums like the Studio Museum,” she said. “But I also must suggest you subscribe to our magazine, Studio, make studiomuseum.org your home page, and follow us on social media platforms. Also, for an amazing introduction to some fabulous contemporary artists, I love the emerging online authority blackcontemporaryart.tumblr.com.”

Selflessly giving a voice to black artists

Thelma Golden’s career has been stellar. From her critically-acclaimed exhibits to her slew of honorary degrees (from the City College of New York, San Francisco Art Institute, Smith College, Moore College of Art and Design, plus a Medal of Distinction from Barnard College), and the particular distinction of escorting the Obamas through the Studio Museum — which does she consider the high point of her career?

“I don’t really think of them of high points. What makes me proud is that I see, each and every day, the ways in which this institution has given a voice to artists of African descent,” Golden told theGrio. “I see their work everywhere, all over the world, really reinforcing what the founders of this museum knew in 1968: the incredible beauty and power of the work of artists of African descent.”

For more information about the Studio Museum, visit: http://www.studiomuseum.org/

article by Suzanne Rust via thegrio.com

2 thoughts on “The Art of Being Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.