Thelma Golden has been the director of the Studio Museum in Harlem since 2005 and a curator there since 2000. This year, the museum–founded as an institution devoted to African-American art and artifacts of the African diaspora–celebrated its fortieth anniversary. The museum is featuring a retrospective on the photorealist painter Barkley Hendricks, who showed early works there in the 1980s.
In 1994 you curated an exhibition at the Whitney called "Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art." Have the concerns of black artists shifted away from identity politics in the past fifteen years?
Identity politics is a problematic catchword. All work in some ways is involved in identity politics–the question is just what is chosen to be centralized and becomes labeled as such, and what then is marginalized and then becomes labeled as such. Thinking about race and gender and identity has shifted, but that’s because the world has shifted. It’s not a shift specific to black artists. The way in which artists work in any particular moment is contextual. An African-American artist working in 1968 was working in a different context than 2008.
What are your favorite pieces in the collection?
I don’t have favorites in the collection. I know that sounds like a dodge. There are about 2,000 objects in our collection that have come through gifts as well as purchase. The strength of our collection is the way in which it really tells a story of the nature of the collecting and the presenting of African-American art by artists of African descent. A lot of gifts in our collection came from the very people who first championed the work of African-American artists. Also, a lot of our collection reflects our exhibition history, so that in many cases there were artists that the Studio Museum really championed and showed first. Now some of those artists are collected widely.
Has the museum been impacted by gentrification in Harlem?
I don’t think we have changed in response to the gentrification, but I do think the community has changed, and we have been part of the change happening in the community. The idea of starting a museum in Harlem in 1968 to many people seemed like a very farfetched idea. Those founders of the museum not only had a vision for Harlem in the future but had a vision that this institution was necessary and should be in Harlem. The Harlem community has been getting more diverse, not necessarily in the way that you read about, but in subtler ways. For example, there are many people who are not American who’ve moved to Harlem, who are Europeans, Asians, who move to New York, more to Harlem, and their sense of Harlem is from abroad, from afar. And they’re deeply invested in knowing the history. And then there are longtime residents who have been our visitors from the day we opened and continue to be our visitors. That is gratifying as well, in some way, to be a neighborhood museum.
You sometimes read about the shortened cycle of careers for artists today, about MFA graduates moving to galleries, blowing up and then fading out. What do you think about that cycle?
I think now life is faster generally, so that this kind of faster cycle of artists being MFA students to graduating and showing is just a reflection of how completely speed dominates existence right now. On the other hand, I just went last night to the opening of Mary Heilmann at the New Museum. There is nothing like seeing a mature artist who, over their career, has had a chance to develop a strong voice. Now careers can be very short. But I look around at other forms of culture, and I see that as well. I think about that in music and bemoan it a little, and I think about it in acting and the film world–this idea of people whose careers are one big flash and then slowly burn out. And it is unfortunate, but again I am perhaps an optimist and perhaps somewhat naïve, because at heart I am really a curator. So I am not willing to cut myself off from artworks and artists at any point in their career.
How many nights a week are you out, looking at art?
I am generally out five nights a week. Monday to Friday.
How has the way that people interact with art changed in your lifetime?
I’ve read all the studies that say people are moving through museums really fast. I certainly see people who come in and have a typical museum visit–walk around, look at each thing, read labels. But I’ve also had the experience of people who come back over and over again to look at one thing or a particular exhibit. When I was a high school student in New York City, I took some of the arts education classes for high school students at the Metropolitan Museum. I had an amazing teacher, who is an artist, named Randy Williams. There were times he’d make us spend the whole class looking at one work of art, really carefully, really deeply, really systematically: top to bottom, side to side. Other times he’d make us walk through galleries, not really stopping, and take in things. Now when I look back, it felt like performance art sometimes: all of us looking at one thing or following him in a line. He wanted us to see how our own eye worked and to train our eye. Everyone experiences art differently, and what Randy taught us is that artworks also demand from us a certain kind of ability in order to fully understand them. When I go to the Met there are still works I’m drawn to from the time I went with Randy. That’s what he was trying to teach us: that artworks try to speak to us, instead of us trying to control them.