Thelma Golden is not the kind of curator who just hangs art — she uses it to help us see the world in new ways.
As a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and now as the chief curator and director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, Golden has had a prominent role in the presentation of African-American art over the past two decades.
In 1994, Golden organized a show at the Whitney called Black Male: Representations of Black Masculinity in Contemporary Art. Coming after the Rodney King riots, OJ Simpson’s trial and Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings, the exhibit touched a nerve with the public and influenced the discussion of race in the art world. It also made Golden’s reputation in curatorial circles. Her 2001 exhibition, "Freestyle," became equally influential.
Golden’s love of art started young. “My parents were deeply invested in African-American culture — they loved music, they loved the theater, they loved literature,” she says. They also didn't play the censor. “I saw many things that, clearly, I wouldn’t have fully understood. But what I understood was the feeling of it.”
Golden’s influences weren’t all “high culture,” however. Prime-time television also helped shape her world view. Mary Tyler Moore was an example of “a fully actualized professional woman doing it on her own” and Roxy Roker's portrayal of Helen Willis, the neighbor on "The Jeffersons" who is always heading off to the theater or Lincoln Center, gave her a sense of “what would be possible for her.”
Once Golden was allowed to take the subway by herself, she was drawn to museums. They were the places that were “most welcoming, most accessible, most open, had most potential for me as a young person,” she says. “I spent hours and hours walking through museums, picking up every free brochure, buying postcards in the gift shop, reading wall labels.” Some of the guards in the museums, many of them middle-aged African-American men, were “surprised, but often thrilled to see her walking around on her own," and became her guides.
When she came across a New York Times article about Lowery Stokes Sims, then curator of 20th century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Golden knew she had found her calling. “I was then was able to fully understand that there was someone who made those choices, who put those things on the walls,” Golden says. “That’s when I decided that I wanted to be a curator.”
She started as an intern at the Studio Museum in Harlem, then moved up to curator. In 1991, she was hired by David Ross at the Whitney, where she was the first black curator.
“I was very proud when I got that job,” she says. “I felt an incredible amount of responsibility. I walked in that door every day with the sense of what it meant.”
Her exhibition, “Black Male,” was a groundbreaking show that examined how contemporary artists portrayed images of black masculinity from the late 1960s to the present. Golden credits David Ross and Dorothy Miller, a pioneering curator who had worked at the Museum of Modern Art, with giving her the encouragement to develop the “curatorial vision that made that show possible.” But she also credits the artists whom she presented in the show.
“That exhibition came out of the fact that I was raised as a curator by a fierce group of artists,” she says. “Artists who really demanded of me that I understand what their work was about, and, as a curator, begin to create the spaces that it could occupy.”
When her career began, exhibitions of work by black artists were scarce enough that each one felt, to Golden, like it carried a burden of representing the state of African-American art. That has changed, and Golden has had a big part in the growing diversity of black artists on view in high-profile institutions.
While she’s proud of how far museums have come in representing artists of color, Golden says, “I will be the first one to say that I still want more.”