As a child, Thelma Golden dreamt of a life in art museums—and that’s exactly the path she followed, breaking brilliant and historic new ground along the way.
CURATOR / MUSEUM DIRECTOR
ART / CURATION / THE STUDIO MUSEUM IN HARLEM / METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART / WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART / MOMA / LOWERY STOKES SIMS / GLENN LIGON / GARY SIMMONS / KEHINDE WILEY / DAVID ADJAYE / DOROTHY CANNING MILLER / FRED WILSON / POST-BLACK / DURO OLOWU / SMITH COLLEGE / MAHOGANY / PAPER MAGAZINE / THE NEW YORK TIMES / MASTERPIECE
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
And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. — Debbie Millman