The Studio Museum in Harlem has maintained a presence in New York's art world since its inception in 1968, and Thelma Golden, its influential director, is a woman who long ago dreamed of working in a museum and has more than realized that dream. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 profile.
Long ago, Thelma Golden resolved that she would lead a life of the mind, a life filled with culture.
It all started with a board game, "Masterpiece," featuring reproductions of great pieces of art.
"I was fascinated by them, these amazing postcard-size reproductions that I promptly took out of the game. The pieces probably scattered and went in the bottom of some bin, but they ended up on the wall of my room," Golden says. "In many ways, I think of that as being one of the first moments where I really understood curating."
Golden is the director and chief curator of the studio museum in Harlem. She's been described as a dynamo, an influential figure in New York and increasingly throughout the country, speaking at nationally known forums like the Aspen Institute and TED Talks.
"To talk about beauty, to talk about power, to talk about ourselves, and to talk and to speak to each other. That's what makes me get up every day and want to think about this generation of black artists and artists around the world," she said at TED Talks.
There are many prominent museums in New York, but the Studio Museum in Harlem is unique. When Michelle Obama came to New York in 2011, she toured the studio museum in Harlem. It is unique, focusing on works by artists of African descent, and as a studio, it keeps the making of art in Harlem, where the Studio Museum was created in 1968.
"I love being here as an anchor with the deep roots here in Harlem, intention of being here always, but also, as the neighborhood shifts, it gives us opportunities to begin to think about what this neighborhood is and what its becoming," Golden says.
Golden's position synthesizes her family history. Her father was raised in Harlem with a passion she realized growing up in Queens.
"The great, great, great, great, great thing for me was when I was allowed to take the subway by myself from Queens into Manhattan," Golden says. "I mean, I begged for that forever, and when finally allowed to do so, what I did was go to museums."
Golden first worked briefly at the Studio Museum in 1987, returned in 2000 and was promoted to her current position in 2005.
She thinks of herself as a facilitator for artists and audiences. Running a nonprofit invariably means fundraising, and Golden's prominence certainly helps to "sell" the museum.
As someone who has curated for more than 25 years, her primary passion remains the power of the exhibition.
"Through art and artists, I think we can begin to think about the world in a different way," Golden says. "Artwork can provide us with the opportunity to see our world as it is or see it as it's imagined by someone else. It can provide us with an opportunity to understand what we might think, but it also can provide a point of respite, where perhaps it asks questions that don't really easily get answered."
Golden says that she found her voice as a curator during her decade at The Whitney Museum. Of note is a 1994-1995 exhibition called "Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art." The controversial exhibition used painting, sculpture, photography, video, film and the written word to chronicle changing perceptions of African-American masculinity.
"If I never made another exhibition after that, I still will have felt as if that exhibition spoke very deeply and profoundly to what I believe about art, and I also feel very proud that it lived in the world, and still lives in the world, in such an amazing way," Golden says. "I don't still think I have all the answers about what it means, and what it meant at that time. It resonates very profoundly for me."
Golden grew up in a home steeped in culture, from Broadway to music, dance and education. Along with her brother, she left her St. Albans neighborhood to attend a private school on Long Island, The Buckley Country Day School.
"I found the ability to move between worlds wonderful because it showed me so many different things in different ways," she says.
She developed an early love of art and art history, and she had an important realization.
"It was very clear to me, even as a young child, that I did not have artistic talent, not just in the visual art, but in dance or in music," Golden says. "And that's when I began to really appreciate talent."
She became a regular visitor at museums in Manhattan, and some of the best lessons learned came from what you might think an unlikely source.
"There were many guards who got to know me and who would talk to me and would tell me things about museums, about these works of art, about their own impressions, and that formed for me what has been a lifelong engagement in talking, wherever I am in the world, with guards in museums," Golden says.
Golden cites the help of many teachers as mentors, most of whom are only known to those fortunate enough to have had them in class. But then, there was the professor at Smith College whose work was read around the world, a professor who Golden called Jimmy: author James Baldwin.
"I so deeply wanted to be a part of what I saw to be the richness of a kind of cultural community, and that's what he represented," Golden says. "And I felt in this class, that's what I hoped that I would learn, and I did."
At the Studio Museum, Golden has become the mentor, attempting to build a community of young patrons.
"We find that getting young people interested in art is not a challenge. They inherently have a sense of the visual, and it's important to them," she says. "What the challenge is, and what we really work hard in and have been very fortunate to make happen, is just getting young people into museums and understanding the experience of a museum, and the experience of not just looking at art, but also making themselves."
Golden is married to Nigerian-born fashion designer Duro Olowu. He lives in London, so Golden spends a lot of time in both cities, but it is here where Golden has realized a dream.
She's a prominent player in New York's cultural community, but she's never lost the sense of wonder she first experienced as a kid going to a museum.
"I feel a huge responsibility to the fact that I do have an opportunity in this position and all the positions that I've had to really speak to what I believe, and what I think many people believe, is the importance of art and culture in our world," she says. "And I take that very seriously, but I also, it brings me an incredible amount of joy."