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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.”

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