Much of Thelma Golden’s career has been spent at the Studio Museum in Harlem, where she first began working as a curatorial fellow in 1987. After a stint at the Whitney, she returned in 2000, and has been the museum’s director and chief curator since 2005. Below, Golden talks about the museum’s future as it prepares to open in a new building.
ARTnews: The Studio Museum is at another critical juncture where it’s preparing to move to a new home designed by David Adjaye. With the new building, how will its relationship to the community shift?
Thelma Golden: The Studio Museum has always had a deep relationship with the Harlem community. I often talk about how our name is the Studio Museum in Harlem, but quite often people call us the Studio Museum of Harlem. Often, in between that space is the reality. We continue to appreciate the fact that we are in and of Harlem, both as we related to the past of our great community, but as we are also of the future.
The artist-in-residence program has made the Studio Museum a future-facing institution.
I often say that our founders put our actual mission into the name of the museum. By that, I mean that the studio coming first really shows the way the founders saw the residency program and, by extension, artists, at the center of the museum. The program continues to offer artists the opportunity for space and time, which are deeply important commodities for young artists, but even more important, it offers them a way to begin to form community with each other. The program has shifted as the culture world and the art world [have] shifted, but it’s still important to us that we are creating space for these artists.
When you talk about space, do you mean the studio space?
The studio space, but also the intellectual space. That year allows them to begin to articulate through their practice and their identity their relationship to each other and the museum. I can’t tell you, as a curator, how transformative it has been for me to work in a museum where artists are literally in the museum. For context here, I was an intern at the Studio Museum during my sophomore year at Smith College in 1985. When I graduated, I came back, and I was a curatorial fellow from 1987 to 1988. Then I went to the Whitney, and I came back to the museum in 2000. It was in my early years at the museum that Kerry James Marshall was in residence, and that’s how I first met Kerry, Alison [Saar], and so many artists of the era [who] shaped my curatorial work at the Whitney Museum.
A rendering of the Studio Museum’s new building.
Courtesy Adjaye Associates.
The museum has also become an important place that curators, educators, and others flow through.
[At the Studio Museum], they begin their careers and are able to not only get real professional experience but to form a mission and get a vision of real museum work. I say this as someone whose career is the result of those early experiences at the Studio Museum. It cannot be overstated how significant it was for me, as a 19-year-old art history/African-American studies double major from Smith College, to encounter Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell, art historian and director of the Studio Museum. I can’t tell you what it meant for me, after over a decade as a curator at the Whitney, to become chief curator at the Studio Museum and to work for Dr. Lowery Stokes Sims, a pioneer in the museum field.
As you’re getting ready to open a new home, are you doing some reflecting on the museum’s history?
Yes. I’ve been calling on the spirit of the founders now—to think about what it means to create a museum during a moment of huge social reckoning. What does it mean to be building this new museum at a moment where we’re talking about the recovery and walking with a sense of imagination of the city and the Harlem community? I know the moment that the Studio Museum was founded had to feel something like this moment now. I have been so gratified that, when I walk the streets of Harlem, the sense of the museum’s future is attached to a real sense of hope.
A version of this article appears in the Winter 2021 issue of ARTnews, under the title “The Studio Museum Effect.”