Fate. Destiny. It’s easy to laugh them off as superstition; to disregard them as a convenient means of explaining away how some of life’s more extraordinary things came to pass.
But Thelma Golden really, really makes one wonder.
At age 10, when most kids are picking up copies of Matilda and Hatchet, the future Studio Museum in Harlem director made a habit of reading The New York Times every morning, with a particular focus on the Arts section. Meanwhile, in her spare time Golden would coordinate and stage exhibitions in her bedroom using postcards from MoMA and cards from an art-collecting board game that she had little interest in actually playing.
It’s not as if she was simply following in her parents’ footsteps, as is often the case with such early niche interests; growing up in Queens, her father was an insurance broker and her mother worked on community issues. Her interests were wholly, and incredibly, her own.
Moreover, as a kid, a career as a museum curator isn’t as easy to latch onto as, say, aspiring to become an astronaut. Or a doctor. Or a lawyer. Even an artist. And yet after reading a profile of longtime Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Lowery Stokes Sims—the first black curator at the museum in a profession long dominated by white males—Golden decided that that’s what she would one day become.
In high school, she could perpetually be found at museums. And thus it’s really no surprise that while also in high school, Golden managed to get an internship at the Met. She then headed off to Smith college, where she worked toward a bachelor’s in art history and African American studies, witnessing a curriculum in the former that was devoid of art by black creators. And yet outside of the classroom she interned at the Studio Museum in Harlem—of which she has said, “The Studio Museum gave me a sense of my place in museums.”
After graduating in 1987, Golden joined the Studio Museum for a year as a curatorial assistant before taking a gig at the Whitney Museum of Art—becoming, like her hero Sims at the Met, the institution’s first black curator. There, after a lifetime of prepping, Golden was finally free to do what she had long set out to do. The results were, predictably, poignant: Following her work on the 1993 Biennial, she launched “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in American Art,” which was both brilliant and divisive in its explorations of identity, image and stereotype. It was covered extensively in the press, and perhaps one of its greatest achievements was that it prompted and fostered an exchange. As Golden told The Washington Post, “What I learned from ‘Black Male’ is the important space that museums can create for a dialogue with and through art about the issues in our world.”
Today, as the Post notes, “In the #BlackLivesMatter era, at a time of growing consciousness about how racial identities are constructed and maintained by newsrooms, politicians and police forces, that show feels prophetic.” Golden is commonly cited as being ahead of the times in her exhibitions, and one is struck by the timing of her rise in the art world at large and the messages, movements and artists she brought with her.
While at the Whitney, Golden often dreamt of a black museum at the head of the cultural conversation. And soon enough, she found herself back at the Studio Museum in Harlem, working to forge just that—under the mentorship of the very person who had inspired her career as a curator in the first place, Lowery Stokes Sims, the institution’s new director. Soon enough, Golden was making waves with the show “Freestyle,” which spotlighted the work of 28 emerging black artists and simultaneously coined the term “Post-Black.” Golden’s “F” series of shows over the years—“Frequency,” “Flow,” “Fore,” “Fictions”—would continue to introduce brilliant minds on the edge to the world, and her work at large has brought the likes of Glenn Ligon, Kehinde Wiley and many others into the national and international spotlight.
Reflecting on her practice, as she said in a TED Talk, “I am continually amazed by the way in which the subject of race can take itself in many places that we don’t imagine it should be. I am always amazed by the way in which artists are willing to do that in their work. It is why I look to art. It’s why I ask questions of art. It is why I make exhibitions.”
Before long, things came full circle: When Sims retired in 2005, Golden became the Studio Museum’s director. In her tenure, she has presided over a boom in visitors, she has tweaked the museum’s scope from African American creators to black artists at large, and she has kept the institution looking to the future—both in its lineup of shows, and in its physical presence, as the architect David Adjaye has been commissioned to build its new home.
Was there ever another career path for Golden? Given how brilliant, motivated and driven she is, she no doubt could have succeeded in any number of fields. But was there ever an option?
Regardless, she powerfully illustrates that if you feel a calling, you must listen to it.
And today, she has become what Sims once was to her. She has notched the directions through the forest on the bellies of trees, showing the way forward.
One thrills at who might pick up the trail next.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
Curtis: This is Design Matters with Debbie Millman, from DesignObserver.com. For 14 years now, Debbie Millman has been talking with designers and other creative people about what they do, how they got to be who they are, and what they're thinking about and working on. On this podcast, Debbie talks with the Museum Director Thelma Golden about the power of curation.
Thelma: The cultural landscape is not fixed. It can be shifted and changed. And we can claim places in it.
Curtis: Here's Debbie.
Debbie: Some kids dream become of becoming artists. Thelma Golden dreamed of becoming a curator. And her dream came true. In 1993, Thelma Golden brought many non-white, non-male artists into the Whitney Biennial, which she co-curated that year. In 1994, she curated another show at the Whitney titled The Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art. It was controversial and it put her on the map as a fearless curator with a gift for disturbing the racial status quo in art. She is currently the Director and Chief Curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem where she continues to provoke and inspire.
Thelma Golden, welcome to Design Matters.
Thelma: Thank you. It's fantastic to be here.
Debbie: Thank you. Thelma, I think people would be surprised to learn that given how immersed you are in the art world, your walls at home are for the most part blank. Any particular reason why?
Thelma: Well, I think that as someone that has the privilege of being in a museum every day, of having the experience to look at art and be around art all day, I have often welcomed in my home environment having a kind of mental space created out of the physical space that comes from not always engaging with art. Now, it's not to say I live with no art at all. Of course, I live with amazing, fantastic pieces of art. But not in a way that I'm curating at home.
Debbie: Now, I know that you're a native New Yorker. You grew up in Queens and then went to the Buckley Country Day School on Long Island. And just as a really sort of wonderful serendipitous coincidence, I'm also a native New Yorker. I also lived in Queens and I also went to school on Long Island. But not at the Country Day School. Now, I knew you studied dams and you took piano lessons. Were you ever interested in becoming a musician?
Thelma: No. I wasn't at all. I mean, I loved music, I loved dance, I loved the arts as a child. But I think when I look back now, what I understood I loved was the idea of self-expression. But I did not necessarily .... Even in those days when I was taking dance lessons and music lessons ... I had no aspiration toward a professional life in those fields.
Debbie: Your Dad was an insurance broker and your Mom worked on community and social causes. And it's been written that by the time you were 10 years old, you were reading The New York Times every single morning. What was it about The New York Times that you found so captivating at 10 years old?
Thelma: Well, that was really the influence of my father who, you know, in those days in Queens there was several newspapers that were in Queens and Long Island. So that The New York Times was the paper in many ways of Manhattan. But my father, who was a man who believed deeply in education, believed deeply in knowledge, he read along with reading the Long Island Press and The Daily News and Newsday, read the New York Times. Got it home-delivered. And this was almost considered an extravagance, but he believed in it.
And he would read The New York Times in the morning. He would point out articles. More often than not point out articles as a way to talk about issues. And quite often as I expressed my interest in the arts or in culture, he would point to particular articles and actually give them to me. So that by the time I was 10 or 11 that was happening. And by the time I got to high school, he was separating out the sections and leaving the art section for me and I read it on the subway on the way to school.
Debbie: That's amazing. I was lucky if I got the comic section from Long Island Newsday. I'm wondering if you can tell us about the postcards and arches you'd stage in your bedroom as a kid?
Thelma: Well, visiting museums was a great joy. And I first went to museums as part of the field trips in my school. I had a fantastic teacher, Lucille Buck, who took us to museums all over. Not only in Manhattan, but also on Long Island and Queens. So really my introduction to some of this city's and this region's great institutions. And whenever we went on a field trip, I would buy postcards from the museum gift shop. You know, of course, this is in the days before the internet, and that was how you could then have the images that you saw on the walls.
And I collected these postcards and I would hang them on the wall and the bulletin board in my room. But as I became more interested in art, I realized that I began that interest and many times in looking at these works. Often that were from different periods, different kinds of artworks. But putting them together thematically. Beginning to look for what they said to each other. Beginning to express my own sense of artistic knowledge and in some ways taste.
Debbie: And I understand you liked the game Masterpiece.
Thelma: You know, I didn't like the game Masterpiece, but I was so lucky that someone gave it as a gift to my brother and I. And my brother hated the game Masterpiece and never wanted to play it. So it meant that then the cards that were in Masterpiece, which were all great reproductions of works of art, ultimately became mine and we discarded the rest of the game. But we were able, I was able to have those images. And again, through my life whenever I encounter one of the works of art that was featured in that game in a museum in person, I still have the same charge that I did when I was 12 or 13 encountering those works in the reproduced form.
Debbie: I understand that for your 10th anniversary at The Studio Museum, your staff gave you a copy of the now out-of-print board game.
Thelma: They scoured eBay for months and I was thrilled to get it. I hadn't seen it in so many years.
Debbie: Was it what you remembered?
Thelma: In a way it wasn't, simply because as I said, my brother was so uninterested in it we never played the game. So what I remember about it I realized was so conditioned by the fact that I immediately went to it for the content.
Debbie: In 1975, again when you were 10 years old, the movie Mahogany came out. And you've stated that the movie was completely transformative for you. In what way?
Thelma: When I saw the movie Mahogany, I at first was of course enthralled by this vision of beauty and glamour. Now, of course, I went into the movie with that vision of beauty and glamour as represented by Diana Ross, but in the character Tracy Chambers, this young woman who's, you know, working in a department store but has this aspiration to be a world-famous designer, is discovered by a photographer serendipitously and then is transported off to Rome to become a famous model. But with, again, a love story attached to it as she becomes involved with a politician who's literally ready to lead the people and create change in that community.
Debbie: Who was Billy Dee Williams, by the way.
Thelma: Exactly, exactly. Who was Billy Dee Williams. And so the combination of both the story of her finding her creative voice and this story of what it means to be in community ... But it also was important to me because the vision of this idea of her ambition was inspiring.
Debbie: Yeah. That movie was also transformative for me. I think I'm just a little bit older than you, but it was something that captivated me. Just the way she was able to draw those beautiful, beautiful outfits that she was designing. The way she used ink in her drawings was mesmerizing to me.
Thelma: Yeah. No, and it also ... It's what of course cemented my love of fashion. It created for me a whole sort of style goals of the highest level. And it really in so many ways was an incredible way where I began to understand ideas of black beauty.
Debbie: Now, I believe that you began planning your career in the art world following a sixth grade art history class. Can you tell us about what happened then?
Thelma: Well, that art history class was the moment in which I understood that art could be studied. You know, until that point I'd taken art classes and understood art making was invested in the idea of self-expression. But studying art history and understanding the way in which the study of art history was really a study of history, a study of culture, fascinated me. And I had an incredible teacher, Lucille Buck, who taught us art history very formally. And supplemented that with those fantastic visits to museums. And I began to understand that what we saw on the walls in museums was created by someone. I didn't know the term curator at that moment. I didn't understand the job trajectory. But I did understand when I went into museums that somebody made that possible. And I began to think, "What could it mean or what would it mean to work in a museum?"
My first encounters with museum professionals were museum docents. And I thought, "That perhaps was the job." You know, when you go to a museum and there'd be these fantastic people, mostly women, who would give tours but do it in such a way that really brought you into the art, brought you into the moment. But as I moved through elementary school into high school, I had the opportunity to intern at The Metropolitan Museum and that's when I fully understood all of the different jobs that were existing in a museum. And really decided then that I want ... That's what I wanted to do.
Debbie: I know that you were also captivated by the museum guards. And you've said this about the experience, "I was deeply nurtured by museum guards who were incredibly gratified to see me, a young black woman in those museums. Many of those men have passed on now, but early in my career, they all still worked in museums and saw me become a curator. I was invisible in the museums to the patrons, but the guards would come around the corners." Thelma, I understand that that's how you discovered Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series. Is that correct?
Thelma: Yes, it was through a guard at The Museum of Modern Art. A guard who had been there by then already 20 years. When he retired from The Museum of Modern Art, he'd been there for 40 years.
Thelma: But was someone who saw me often there. But then took it upon himself to point out the works of art very significantly by African-American artists and very particularly made me understand the genius of Jacob Lawrence and the masterwork that that series is. And that really began my understanding of art history and how art history is written through these various artists' voices.
Debbie: You mentioned getting a job as a high school intern at The Met. How does one go about getting an internship as a high school student at The Met?
Thelma: The Metropolitan Museum, like so many of our great cultural institutions, including The Studio Museum, has a fantastic high school program. It's a program that combines art education and instruction. So I was in that program for a year, taught by amazing artists Rico Burnham and Randy Williams. And then there was a program called The Apprentice Program, which was a high school internship program which placed you in a museum department to work three days a week after school through the fall and in the spring semester. And I was an apprentice at The Metropolitan Museum in my junior and senior year in high school.
Debbie: It was during your internship that you said that you found your purpose and realized that your life's work would be curating. And you declared, "I began to understand that all of these works on the walls were actually created by people who had this deep expertise in a particular kind of artwork. A particular period. And that to me became fascinating as an idea that that was a job. That that was a job that I could do." And Thelma, that's a pretty profound realization to have so early in life. You never wanted to be anything else after that? You never considered becoming a fine artist yourself?
Thelma: Well, I don't know if it was a profound revelation as much as I just thought I could speak it into existence.
Thelma: I just thought I knew this is what I wanted to do and I was a high school intern at The Metropolitan Museum. I would be there on these afternoons after school walking through sometimes on Monday those galleries when no one was in the galleries in the presence of incredible centuries of art. The evidence of man's highest aspiration through artistic practice. And I just knew that this is what I wanted to do. But actually, the apprentice program also showed me curators at work. The real work, the research. The intellectual work, the labor that goes into making exhibition. Making meaning for visitors in and around art. And I respected that. And I knew at that point I did not have that skill. But I pledged to myself in my aspiration then towards college and beyond that that's what I wanted to do.
Debbie: And I understand that you made a conscious choice not to be an art historian.
Thelma: In retrospect it seems conscious, but perhaps more accurately I knew I wanted to be a curator and I wanted to work in museums. And because I went to college, majored in Art History and African-American Studies, graduated from college and began working immediately in museums, the fact that I was actually doing the work already made me know that the detour potentially in those early years of my career towards graduate school would not necessarily be as satisfying. I didn't know necessarily that that was the right decision to make. I have deep respect for the academy and to understand how art historical training could have put me on a different equally fantastic path, but it was so clear once I got into the work itself. I was in a museum and working in around art and artists that that's what I wanted to be.
Debbie: You attended Smith College and received your BA in Art History and African-American Studies as you mentioned. And while you were there you interned at the campus museum and worked on a show about the school's alumnus Dorothy Canning Miller, the first professional curator at MoMA. She had been appointed in 1947 during a time when very, very few women had roles like that in formal institutions. Did the work of Dorothy influence you at all?
Thelma: Completely. Working on that exhibition was transformative because it gave me an example of a kind of curator I wanted to be. You know, in her role at The Museum of Modern Art, she did a series of pioneering exhibitions that are now referred to as a group called The Americans. But at the time they were named by the number, 13 Americans, 12 Americans. But when you look over the course of those exhibitions, and at the middle of the century they really documented the massive shift in art and art making at that time. And often with the first exhibitions of some of the most significant artists who were working in that day. And I understood that as a very particular role. The curator who defines a moment. Who is in the present looking at artwork and creating for artists and audience the opportunity to understand the moment.
I also was inspired by Dorothy Miller because she was a pioneer. She stepped into a field that had been dominated by men and created a role for herself that was so significant and really opened up so much space that it felt to me like there could be a way that in her career I could find the keys to what I wanted to do.
Thelma: That in her career I could find the keys to what I wanted to do.
Debbie: People know you now as the Studio Museum in Harlem's director and chief curator. What they might not know is that you started there as an intern. That's incredible as well. At the time of its founding in 1968, the Studio Museum was built to celebrate artists who were being excluded from the white dominated art world, and of your internship you said this, "Interning at the Studio Museum gave me a sense of my place in museums." How did you first find your way to the Studio Museum?
Thelma: I found the Studio Museum because in many ways it's an institution I always knew. My father was born and raised in Harlem. The Studio Museum was founded in 1968, so through my childhood in the 70s, the Studio Museum existed and was open. It's a place that I've visited with my parents. My parents were deeply invested in New York's African American cultural institutional scene, so that I understood the Studio Museum in the context of other institutions like the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The National Black Theater, the Negro Ensemble Company, the Dance Theater of Harlem, Alvin Ailey, I mean these were the cultural institutions that my parents supported, and took my brother and I to, and really in many ways shaped my sense of culture because they positioned black culture at the center of a cultural understanding. So it informed not only my understanding of the Studio Museum specifically, but also its role and its importance.
Debbie: After interning, you worked there as a curatorial assistant for a year, and in 1988, took the job at the Whitney Museum of American Art. And you were the institution's first black curator. At the time, did you feel the significance of this new role?
Thelma: Well, when I went to the Whitney in 1988, I was actually a curatorial assistant at that moment, so I graduated from college. I spent a year at the Studio Museum as a fellow, a program that we still have now for recent college graduates, and then I went to the Whitney in 1988 as a curatorial assistant working for the curator, Richard Armstrong, who is now the director of the Guggenheim Museum. And in that role, I worked for Richard on a range of amazing exhibitions he made and got to see close up what it meant to be a curator and to work with such a fantastic curator.
I then left the Whitney in 1990 to work for the art historian, Kelly Jones, who was then running an incredibly innovative contemporary art program in southeast Queens, the neighborhood where I grew up. And working for Kelly for that year, year and a half, gave me the sense of possibility about contemporary curatorial practice. It was right at the time a job opened up at the Whitney for a director of the Whitney's branch at Philip Morris. And so that job, coming back to the Whitney in '91, became then my first curatorial role. And in that job I was, yes, the first African American curator at the Whitney Museum.
Debbie: I understand that you used to be mistaken for your own assistant.
Debbie: While people will be furious hearing this, you've said it was actually liberating, and I was wondering if you can talk about how that could be liberating?
Thelma: You know, it's something that perhaps could not happen now, though, I have to say it has happened now, but in this world we live in now where we have so much more visual information as a reference point, perhaps it wouldn't happen in the way it did in those days, pre-Internet when people would speak to me on the phone for weeks ahead of an appointment and then I would show up and their sense of who they spoke to on the telephone, who would have been this curator at the Whitney, and who I was when I showed up could not be the same person. And what I found was liberating about that is that being so profoundly underestimated gave me a sense of what my own possibility was.
I never took that as an insult, but yet I understood that I was always disproving people's sense of limitation. So the idea in that moment that there were certain people who couldn't imagine that a black woman, a young woman, could be a curator at the Whitney, then when confronted with me as that and they had to reshuffle their mind to kind of make sense of that, it allowed me a sense to show them what that possibility was and to stand very much in the sense of who I was. But also, it was liberating because it allowed me to always understand very deeply the responsibility I had in the position then and continues to occupy.
Debbie: As you said, when discussing your early curatorial approach in a Ted talk, "I was interested in the idea of why and how I could create a new story, a new narrative in art history and a new narrative in the world. And to do this, I knew that I had to see the way in which artists work, understand the artist's studio is a laboratory, imagine then reinventing the museum as a think tank and looking at the exhibition as the ultimate white paper, asking questions, providing the space to look and to think about answers." Thelma, do you still retain this philosophy to this day? Is this something that is still very much the way in which you approach your work?
Thelma: It is, completely. I would say that the only way in which it's shifted is that at that time I was speaking of that in relation to curatorial practice and exhibitions, and now after 12 years as a museum director, I feel the exact same way about museums. So not just exhibitions, but the idea that the institution has to be thought through and rethought and reinvented and reengaged consistently in order to be relevant and important and significant.
Debbie: You went on to stay at the Whitney for 10 years, curating a brilliant array of shows such as the one that really puts you on the map in an intense way, Black Male Representations of Masculinity in American Art in 1994. And when it launched, Black Male really blew up, The show provoked anger from opposite camps. Conservative critics who charged you with abandoning taste in favor of radicalized politics and African Americans who wanted more uplifting images of black men. And you said this about the experience, "What I learned from Black Male is the important space that museums can create for a dialogue with and through art about the issues in our world. In the black lives matter era, at a time of growing consciousness about how radical identities are constructed and maintained by newsrooms, politicians and police forces, that show feels prophetic. Do you think that if you did the show again now it would have a similar kind of response? Do you think there'd be as much anger?
Thelma: I don't know if I have an answer to that, though what I will say is that at the time I made the exhibition, I was, as I often am in exhibition making, responding to that moment. What has been profoundly important to me is the reckoning that from that moment in 1994, I could have made that exhibition again almost every year since and be in a moment where those issues are still present in our culture, in our society. I think the reaction to the exhibition now would certainly, and the one that I would have to make now, would be different and I think it still would provoke anger, not perhaps at the content of the exhibition in the museum, but the anger would be about the issue itself.
Debbie: And that hasn't really changed much at all.
Thelma: Right. Right.
Debbie: I found it interesting that you opened the show with Fred Wilson's Guarded View, which included four headless black museum guards as mannequins in typical museum guard attire. And I was wondering if that was a nod to your experiences with the guards yourself.
Thelma: It was, but it was more specifically a nod to a performance work that Fred Wilson had done in several institutions before Black Male opened where he, an artist who had worked, as many artists do, as a museum guard, but then as a practicing artist, an important conceptual artist, dressed as a guard and engaged in museum spaces as a way to look at the ways in which the black male body in specific is understood in the culture in those environments. So it was really a nod to Fred's work, but it was also a way to ground the exhibition in a museum. So that here's this museum about black masculinity in contemporary American art and the first work you see brings you into a museum context with the vision of these four mannequins who are guards. It also was a work that was meant to signal to the audience the actual specificity of the topic at hand.
Debbie: You've described the show as contentious, controversial, and ultimately life-changing in your sense of what art could be. In what way?
Thelma: It changed me as a curator. It made me understand what I imagined theoretically that I always wanted to believe, and that is that art could create the space for important conversations in our culture, but that exhibition, in its controversy, but more importantly in the sort of community it created around the dialog that the exhibition created really showed me the potential of the space of the museum and the way in which artists could be at the center of our cultural debate.
Debbie: I'm curious, how does the idea for an exhibition begin to take root and develop in your mind? What makes something museum show worthy?
Thelma: I think for me, every exhibition has been different. In the case of Black Male, it really was a reaction to what was happening in the world. In the 1993 biennial, which was just the year before, John Hanhardt, one of the amazing co-curators of that exhibition, which was led by Elisabeth Sussman. And Lisa Phillips and I and John Hanhardt worked with Elizabeth on the 93 biennial, but John Hanhardt is an amazing film and video media curator and he included the video of Rodney King being beaten in the 93 biennial. A brave, a bold choice, an important one, but one that of course was controversial in the moment. And that video, that image and the way in which it sparked a whole level of conversation among artists made me start looking both in the present, and then going back to the sixties, to look at the ways in which the black male image had been understood by artists as they made work from late 60s to that present.
So that exhibition came very much from the inspiration of the thinking of that moment. I also wanted to make an exhibition that looked at race. And I want it to make an exhibition that understood or positioned a way in which a group of artists of that moment were making conceptual art about race. So there were several layers. There are several artists in that exhibition whose whole bodies of work inspired the exhibition. Glenn Ligon, the painter. Throughout his work, I saw what was really the sense of intellectual armature that the exhibition sat on. When I thought about the way in which many artists had grappled with the work of Robert Maplethorpe, it was clear to me it needed to be wrestled with. I was deeply inspired by the work of Gary Simmons. And in working with Gary Simmons on exhibitions of his own work, the reference points for his work, which often involved sports, hip hop music, put me into pop culture and thinking about that and how it would come into an exhibition. So that exhibition had so many different influences.
Debbie: You're also recognized for nurturing these artists as well. You mentioned Glenn Ligon, he's somebody that you've been very involved in in working with, Kehinde Wiley. What does it take for someone or something to draw your eye? How do you recognize potential and choose who you are interested in working with?
Thelma: Usually I understand the beginning of my relationship to any artist comes through my relationship to their work, so it usually begins because there is something in their work that I see and often I feel that makes me have a profound sense of wanting to be in a conversation around that work. If it provokes questions in me, if it creates a sense of confirming what I think I know or making me not comfortable with what I think I know, that's a way that often I want to be in conversation with more work by that artist. And that then becomes a process of dialogue. And many of the artists that I've been privileged to work with for many years, it's because it's just been an ongoing conversation. And in those ongoing conversations, I am able to be in a kind of collaborative relationship with them, which can often result in a curatorial project.
Debbie: In 2000, after a curatorial stint at the Peter Norton Family Foundation, you return to the Studio Museum, this time as chief curator and deputy director for exhibitions and programs. The first big exhibition that you mounted was Freestyle, which featured 28 emerging African American artists, and in its catalog you described ... You famously described or termed the post-black era and sought to feature artists who were adamant about not being labeled black artists, though their work was steeped in and in fact deeply interested in redefining complex issues and notions of blackness. So can you talk a little bit about the origin of the term post-black? And how is it thought of today?
Thelma: Well, the term post-black had already been in the culture, used by many people to talk about various sociological, political, and cultural conditions. In the case of the exhibition, Freestyle, post-black was really a shorthand for post-black art, and it was a way to think about this era of artists coming after the 90s, after our sort of multicultural moment, but at the Studio Museum, also acknowledging a generation of artists, several generations away from the black arts movement, the sort of signal true defining moment of mid-20th century African American art.
And the Black Arts Movement had an incredible set of sort of intellectual tenants attached to it and for many artists, it was a way in which to define their work within the politics of the moment. The Studio Museum came out of that. Our founding is part of the incredible energy that was created, so post-black was a way to position this generation of artists as fully realizing something that could become beyond that. It wasn't necessarily about them not wanting to be labeled black artists, though that labeling, often by the mainstream, was a limiting and narrowing category. But more importantly, it was a way to open up what was evident in the space of contemporary art making, which was this multi-generational re-looking at the question of, "What art do I make? How is it attached to my identity? How can that be complex and wide and deep at the same time?"
So it was a term in shorthand that was developed in conversations with Glenn Ligon, who I talked to about art often, and we talked about the way in which we both were refreshed by young artists who were able to bring so much complexity into this question of identity in their work. And looking across those 28 artists, you cannot pin a style. So when people ask me if post-black is a style, it is not. It really was an attitude. It's an attitude that allowed these artists to dig deep and to claim so many ways of working in the name of their own individual art practice.
Debbie: You said this about the show, "In the 80s and 90s, curators were in a mode of discovery and exploration, but then that became, thank goodness, the norm, and many black artists moved to the forefront of our consciousness in ways that didn't have to be explained through a black history month label. There was no longer any need to have all those paragraphs before you got to work on why you were showing the work and what this means and dah, dah, dah, pluralism, we are the world, hold hands, Kumbaya." And you went on to declare that the artists in Freestyle or the beneficiaries of the 90s artist's breakthrough. And I think, Thelma, that in many ways, this show not only rethought African American art, but all American art in a way that has never been the same.
Thelma: I think my goal was to create a sense of possibility. The truth is that exhibition was also a very personal one for me because I had had this incredible opportunity in the 90s to work with a generation of artists who were truly, truly groundbreaking. And when I looked over that decade, and by the time I got to the Studio Museum, and that group of artists, artists like Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems, Glen Ligon, Gary Simmons, Fred Wilson, were all at mid-career. I also wanted to go back and begin to engage with emerging artists again, but I knew I could not engage with them by taking the lens that I had in the 90s and placing it on the work that was happening. I wanted to start from scratch and had to allow these artists to tell me who they were and what they were making work about. So the exhibition also was about that, to create this sense of possibility of thinking of what the president was so that we, the Studio Museum, could move forward.
Debbie: You became the head of the museum and the director in 2005 after Larry Stokes Sims retired. In the year since, you've presided over a 30% increase in visitors. You also tweet the museum's focus from African American art to art by black artists in general. And I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about that distinction?
Debbie: I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about that distinction.
Thelma: Yes. Our mission had read almost since our founding that we were a museum of African-American art and artifacts of the African Diaspora, and that mission very much echoed the intellectual space that the museum was founded in in the late '60s, and it became very clear in 2003-2004 when Lowery Sims was still our director and we worked together on rewriting the mission to now say that we are a museum of art by artists of African descent, locally, nationally and internationally.
The idea was that we were embracing the idea of a global black presence, not simply thinking of Africa as artifacts from the past and African-American art as the present, but looking at this idea of an African present and presence all over the world so that artists of African descent, locally, nationally and internationally, gave us that possibility. It gave us the opportunity to look back over centuries, but also in the present, but, really, in its simple way, it really meant that we became a museum that could be truly global.
Debbie: Over the years, the "F" Series that began with your first show, Freestyle, it's continued to spotlight emergent black talent with Frequency in 2005, Flow in 2008, Fore in 2012, and Fictions in 2017. Talk about what the series means to you. It feels like a very special series in the overall work that you're producing.
Thelma: Now that it's happened that many times, it's a series, but I very famously after Freestyle said that, everyone asked, "Oh, will you do it again?" and, of course, I said, "No," and, here, we just keep doing it. Really, what it means is that the museum remains committed to showing amazing, emerging talent, and it's an excellent, fantastic way to do it, but, more importantly and perhaps most significantly for me, it also has become an important curatorial vehicle for emerging curatorial talent.
To do an "F" show as part of our curatorial team is a rite of passage. It is something now that has been curated by a number of curators who are off at other institutions around this country, and I am very proud of that. It allows us always to maintain a relationship to looking at the new, so that process of landing somewhere and really seeking out emerging artists, and that then means that's happening all the time.
We closed the museum in January, so Fictions was the exhibition, the last "F" show that we closed the museum with, and what we're really considering now is then our new life in some years from now. Whether or not we will continue these exhibitions, I can pretty much say we will, but the real question on the table is if they will begin with the letter F.
Debbie: Before any of our listeners might be freaking out that the museum is closing permanently, it's just closing because it's being recreated, and I'll get to that in a minute, and working with David Adjaye.
During his administration, President Obama appointed you to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, and you served from 2010 to 2016. In 2015, you were appointed to the board of the Barack Obama Foundation, slated to build his presidential library in Chicago. What has this relationship been like for you?
Thelma: Oh, it's been an honor truly to serve on the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, understanding the White House as a museum, understanding that collection of artworks and decorative art as being so significant. To us to serve and be brought on for my expertise in American art was incredible, but it was also amazing to witness the ways in which the arts lived in that administration, and then serving on the board of the foundation also, equally, differently, equally, an honor as well as these next steps happen.
Debbie: As we just talked about at this very moment in time, The Studio Museum proper is currently closed, and your new building, which looks amazing in the plans, is being constructed. The original location of the museum was a rented loft on 5th Avenue, between 125th and 126th Streets, and moved to its present location in 1982, and, in 2015, you hired David Adjaye to remake the entire museum. I was actually at one of the introductions to the plans up in Harlem a couple of months ago and saw you and David present. The construction is expected to last through 2021, so what are you doing in the meantime?
Thelma: In the meantime, while we are closed, we have a set of programs and initiatives under the title inHarlem which creates for us the opportunity to make exhibition, present artists' projects and public works in spaces around Harlem as well as city-wide, so we currently have an exhibition of the work of the artist Firelei Báez at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
We also have a project with Maren Hassinger, the sculptor, who was a Studio Museum artist and resident years ago in our collection, but to have her now as a Harlem resident create this amazing set of public sculptures in Marcus Garvey Park that'll be up for a year, we have a series of public programs that are happening in spaces around the neighborhood and in some other institutions in the city.
We are collaborating with other arts organizations around our education program, so we're really existing in a mobile fashion. We are continuing to be The Studio Museum without a building, but in and around the neighborhood.
Debbie: What was the decision-making process like in choosing the architect for this project?
Thelma: We set about looking at a range of firms and architectural offices, about 11 or 12. David emerged early as an architect whose own relationship to artists and art spaces made him uniquely qualified to consider what it would mean to create a new home.
Our current home was a building that was built in 1914 as the Kenwood Office Building. When The Studio Museum acquired it in 1979, it was beautifully and really innovatively renovated by Max Bond. That history, Max is such a pioneering architect in what he created, that then really was the catalyst for so much else that happened on the 125th Street. It was very inspiring to David, and so, now, in thinking about what we could do, it has some of the same values that went into the original renovation of this building in the rebuilding.
Debbie: Now, I understand that the museum building itself was once a former bank, and I believe that your father banked there when you were growing up in Harlem.
Thelma: Yes. Yes, so the Kenwood Office Building was built as a bank, so the design is that it was a bank at the first and mezzanine level, and then there were offices above, law offices, bail bondsmen. When you look in the city record, you see all sorts of businesses that were there.
My father's insurance office was on the corner of that block, and he banked in the building, but also knew many of the businesses that were in the upper floors. That building held a lot of Harlem history for many people, and, of course, when it became vacant, as so many other building in Harlem did, there wasn't a clarity about the sense of what its use could be, and that's what was so beautiful for many people about The Studio Museum moving into that building after it had been vacant for some time and opening it up as a museum.
Debbie: You've said this about the plan redesign. "What we hope is that it is not only a home for us as a 50-year-old museum doing this work, but an example of this possibility of a kind of radical reimagining of the institutional space generally that allows for more people, groups, communities, media to have homes, to have spaces and to be able to live in them with authority and sustainability."
How do you imagine a new building being able to do that?
Thelma: I think its actuality in itself does that. We are an incredible story. When The Studio Museum was founded in 1968 by this incredibly brilliant group of people, it was in this very modest rented loft. When people think about museums, they often think of the great castles and temples of culture that are often created out of a fortune or a great collection. The Studio Museum was formed out of not those kinds of resources, but an incredible amount of cultural capital.
Debbie: Yeah, it doesn't feel like a top-down museum. It feels like a bottom-up in a lot of ways.
Thelma: It was about autonomy. It was a group of people saying, "If other museums are not going to show black artists, if they are not going to respect this work, if they are not going to honor this legacy, we will create our own," and in doing so and our growth of these 50 years to get to what this new building can be I think will be an example to so many others that this is possible, that the cultural landscape is not fixed. It can be shifted and changed, and we can claim places in it.
Debbie: I have a somewhat lengthy quote I want to read that you've said about the museum's sustainability. I'll try to read it rather fast.
You say, "We were founded in a moment in the '60s when lots of organizations and institutions in the visual arts and performing arts were created to present the work of various communities. Cultural specificity had a real impact and import in that moment. The demise of many of those institutions had less to do with the validity of what they were presenting or showing and more to do with what we know are the shifts within the cultural sector, about what it means to be an institution and the stability that that takes. What I think we understand now as a country at the brink of being majority people of color is that cultural specificity isn't simply about the specific. It is about the culture at large. At one level, we see ourselves, The Studio Museum, very much as a product of the moment we were founded, very much a part of that late '60s moment, the culture moment of that, of alternative museums, but also the political moment, the movement of resistance."
Thelma, how is our current moment in time now being considered by the museum and how is that work being informed by the political mood at the US? It feels more important than ever.
Thelma: It does, and I feel as if we didn't need a reason to think about why The Studio Museum was important. We've always known that. We've held a lot of sense of ourself as an institution, but, now, it feels more important and deeply significant to create institutions that are speaking to an America that is represented by democracy and diversity and believes in equity. As an institution, we came out of a moment where that was our founding, and I think we reinvest continually in what it means to do that work.
Debbie: I have two more things that I want to ask you about. The first is your personal style. Vogue Magazine described your style as, "A joyful mix of prints, colors and 1970s flair that seamlessly mesh with her interplay on proportion and shape," and you've said that the thing you have most akin to a uniform is a dress, noting, noting, "I have the best thing ever, which is I have a husband, who's the most amazing and brilliant fashion designer. Everything he does comes out of a deep well of inspiration and innovation, the way he thinks about color, pattern, all of it."
Thelma, what is it like being married to a fashion designer, you lucky woman?
Thelma: It's fantastic. I am grateful all the time. I'm grateful not only because of the clothes themselves, though that's fantastic, but also because he really is an artist, and I get the experience of living with someone who walks through the world thinking visually and who is able to so seamlessly put together a whole range of references and a whole range of experiences. I see how, as we live our life, all of that comes into what he makes as a designer, but I've always had a love of fashion and, certainly, my interest in culture was informed by a deep appreciation for the way in which fashion speaks to culture and the way in which style tells us so much about a particular moment and particular histories as well.
Debbie: How much crosspollination do you have in working together? Do you ever collaborate?
Thelma: Yeah. We don't collaborate so much, but we share so many interests. The person who introduced us to each other really is symbolic of that. We were introduced by Kim Hastreiter, who is the editor and founder of Paper Magazine, and I knew Kim because Kim is such an incredible voice in the art world, the visual art world, so I'd known her for years in her support of artists and art, but she also is a great, great force in the fashion world, and that's how Duro knew her. We both had this incredible relationship to her, and that's what made it so that we ended up meeting each other through her.
Debbie: She must be really happy about this.
Thelma: No, she is, and we are very happy. We got married at the New York City Marriage Bureau, and Kim, along with Glenn Ligon, they were our witnesses.
Debbie: Thelma, my last question for you is about a quote I came across in my research. In the Brooklyn Rail, you stated, "Curatorial practice is intellectual work, weaponized," and I'm wondering if you can elaborate.
Thelma: I think what I meant when I said that had something to do with my understanding of myself as a curator as opposed to an art historian, so, that is, in thinking about art and artworks and artists, that the act of thinking about them, writing about them, important, significant, necessary, but putting them into public space, taking those ideas and making exhibition as a narrative in a public space and engaging with audiences, wide audiences really then allows for something that I think is profoundly powerful, and that is creating space, intellectual space, emotional space, I dare even say spiritual space for us to engage with ourselves and each other.
Debbie: Thelma Golden, thank you so much for transforming the way we see the world through art and through ourselves, and thank you so much for being on Design Matters today.
Thelma: Thank you for having me.
Debbie: Thank you, Thelma. Thelma Golden is the director and chief curator at The Studio Museum in Harlem. For more information, you can go to studiomuseum.org. This is the 14th year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd like to thank you for listening, and, remember, we can talk about making a difference, we could make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.