The art of being Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem

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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.”

Thelma’s golden career arc

Golden also served as director of the Whitney Museum at Phillip Morris before returning to the Studio Museum in 2000 as deputy director for exhibitions and programs. Since 2005, after taking over for Lowery Stokes Sims, Thelma has been in her current position and has curated many critically-acclaimed shows for the Studio Museum.

Chris Ofili: Afro Muses; Black Romantic; Freestyle; Frequency;Glenn Ligon: Stranger; Martin Puryear: The Cane Project; and Isaac Julien: Vagabondia have all come into being under her direction.

While there are many extremely influential and accomplished black women in the art world, such as Valerie Cassel Oliver, senior curator at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston; Kellie Jones, art historian, curator, and author; Kinshasha Conwill Holman, an arts, museum, and management consultant; Corrine Jennings, owner of the seminal gallery Kenkeleba House; Lowery Stokes Sims, curator at the Museum of Arts and Design, and gallerist June Kelly — just to name a few — Thelma Golden has managed to become a high-visibility rock star in this arena.

Considered by many to be one of the most powerful women in the high culture sphere, she has truly established the Studio Museum as a leading source for contemporary African-American art. It has been a steady evolution since its inception in 1968.

The evolution of the Studio Museum

“When the museum was founded it was with the very powerful idea that the exclusion of African-American artists from the canon of American art needed to be challenged and changed,” Golden told theGrio. “The museum’s founding principle was to create the possibility to show innovative and important works of art and to create exhibitions and programs that brought art and culture by black artists to the community and the art world at large. That continues to be our mission, though the art and culture worlds have evolved, Harlem has evolved, and the nature of how people see museums has evolved. That’s what’s exciting about the Studio Museum! Since its founding it has been a transforming and transformative institution.”